I’m hosting another Mary Kay party at Brenda’s place when the topic of Wynette’s baby comes up and whether it’s true that the child was born with hooves for feet. Now I’m not one to call any person a liar, but my first thought is how could any of God’s children ever be so defected as to have hooves for feet? It just don’t seem right.
“Do ya think they’re more like goat’s hooves or cow’s hooves or pig’s?” Lou says. Lou has four boys of her own but lost her fifth to miscarriage a few months back. I switched her over from combination skin lotion to moisture-lock lotion when that happened. I made her promise to start exfoliating. Still, her complexion hasn’t been the same since.
“Which one is it whose feet are cloven?” Brenda says, one eye still reading her Ladies Home Journal and the other examining the pile of Mary Kay samples I’ve spread out on her coffee table.
These are my favorite ladies, and they know as good as me that at the end of our consultation today, I’ll let them each have a few free samples. I don’t mind. I’ve been consulting part-time for eight years now, and I’ve got a whole dresser drawer filled with Smurf-sized bottles of perfumes, lipsticks, and mascaras. The thing is, it’s worth it to give a little bit for free because a little bit for free might mean one or two orders by the night’s end. I know my regular Friday night girls – Brenda and Lou – aren’t going to buy something each time, but at least one of them always tries to bring a friend, and when they do, I load that friend down with so many free samples that she’d feel ashamed not to buy something.
Tonight, Brenda’s brought Annie. She’s a visiting niece, come in from college to spend time with her family for Thanksgiving. She’s as quiet as a mouse.
“Pigs. That’s why the Jewish don’t eat them, isn’t that right? Their cloven feet and all. Don’t see why that matters, but.” And I don’t. There’s a lot of things God wants done a certain way, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to take every one of them as seriously as the next. Not eating anything with cloven feet sounds a bit nit-picky to me. No different from that one religion that won’t let people eat cows. That worships cow, matter of fact. I try not to judge.
“I’m not gonna judge,” I say.
Annie is sitting face-to-face with me, her blonde hair pulled back, all forehead and eyes. I’m dotting concealer on her face, and the whole time, I’m thinking to myself, If I was as young as her, I wouldn’t bother with makeup. I nearly want to tell her this, but of course I don’t. “Anyone ever tell you your skin’s combination? Definitely not the worst I’ve seen, but still. That’s why I used that particular lotion on your face. Formula 3, remember? For combination skin. Because that’s what you’ve got, Honey. Combination.” I smudge harder on her face, and her skin barely reacts. Thick, firm, no wrinkles at all. Well, let her enjoy it while it lasts, I think, and I blend around her hairline and neck.
“Listen. Ya’ll are missing the point. Ya’ll are really missing the point,” Brenda says, tapping her nails against the coffee table. Her fingernails are getting more and more wild looking since her separation from David a few months back. At first, she was content just having them done in hooker-red polish, but lately she’s been experimenting with blue, yellow, orange, and even purple. When she came around wearing green, I took her aside. I pointed out that while it was one thing for middle school girls to run around with green and yellow and what-have-you nail polish, it was entirely another thing for a fifty-two-year-old married woman with two grown children, separated or not! I thought that’d set her straight, but the next time I saw her, as if to spite me, her nails were black. “Well,” I told her, holding up her hand. “That there takes the cake, Brenda. If anything in this world takes the cake, that certainly does.”
“What point is that, dear?” Lou says. She’s trying on lipstick after lipstick, and it’s gotten so that you can’t even tell one shade from the next.
“The point, Lou,” Brenda says, “is that that child has the Devil’s mark on him. Or her. I didn’t catch its name. But that’s not the point either. What I want to know is whether that child’s feet are, in fact, hooves, and if so, why. I’ve never known Reynolds to lie about anything. Why would he make something like that up?”
Reynolds is our mailman. He’s been delivering up and down Love Valley since I was Annie’s age. Nobody else I know ever goes up that way where Wynette and her husband live.
“What in particular did he say about that baby’s feet?” I pick up a swatch of cranberry-colored blush and I work on Annie’s cheeks. Not a word out of her this whole time. She just stares straight past me, at the walls. Brenda’s got a nice place. Her walls are mint green, and she’s got a border lining the ceiling that’s made to look like hanging bundles of grapes. She lives in the same neighborhood as me and Sam, my hubby of nineteen years. Our neighborhood is just on the edge of Love Valley, right up against Cool Springs, which is usually where I say I’m from if anyone asks. Now Love Valley has its normals, like us ladies here tonight, for instance, but speaking in general, you might say that Love Valley is where a lot of the trash blows to. It draws tourists in the fall, when the leaves change. People come here to see our nature, but believe you me, not a one of those tourists, if they’re worth their own salt, would pack up and move here. In the winter, all that’s left is double-wides, dirt roads, and cows. And there’s nothing wrong with that, really, but it’s not the kind of place most people would probably like to live.
“He said that child was walking around the porch one morning, and Wynette was out there sitting with it. Smoking a cigarette, I believe. Well, Reynolds was walking up to the porch to hand the mail to her. Wynette walks down the driveway to him, I suspect to keep him from getting an eyeful of the child. He said to me, ‘Brenda, I ain’t ever seen nothing like it. Two brown hooves, with a cleft right up the middle.’ Turns out, Wynette took the mail and waited at the end of the driveway for him to turn back around and head out. Like she was keeping him from getting a closer look. Why would he lie about something like that?”
“I’ve never known either of them to go to church,” Lou says. Her lips, at this point, are far gone with the lipstick. I pass her a swatch of eye shadow, neutral tones, and tell her, “Honey, why don’t you start on your eyes.” She looks at me, and I can tell she’s not been exfoliating. “Go on,” I say, and she takes it.
“Well,” I say, shaking my head. “I don’t know of something like that happening just on account of being back-slid.”
“Could be drugs,” Brenda says. “He’s a drinker and can’t hold down a job to save his life. I don’t know about Wynette. But if she was drinking and doing whatever else while pregnant, there’s no telling what might come of it.”
“No telling,” I say. “You can never tell.”
And it’s here that Annie puffs out what sounds to me like a little laugh. I’m applying the base eye shadow just beneath her eyebrows, which are badly in need of tweezing, and her eyes open just like that and her laugh, small as it might be, hits me right in the face.
“Something funny?” I ask.
“No. No. It’s just,” she says, shaking her head. She scratches at her cheek and takes off a spot of foundation.
“Just what?” Brenda says.
“You really believe that that baby has cloven feet? I think that’s a little funny, don’t you?” She leans back. One eye’s shaded, the other’s not, which I think is pretty funny, but I keep that to myself.
“Well,” Brenda starts. “Bill knocked up Wynette two years back, when she was seventeen and he was well into his thirties. They got married and settled into Wynette’s dead granny’s place, an abandoned trailer. Wynette’s mother and father won’t have a thing to do with either of them. I see her parents from time to time at the grocery store, and I’m congenial, but I don’t bring up Wynette. No, Ma’am. No need to pick another’s scab is how I see it.”
“Amen to that,” I say.
“Stranger things have happened,” Lou says. She shrugs her skinny shoulders. Ever since the miscarriage, she’s lost weight. Like a popped balloon, I tell people about her when they ask how she’s doing. Just like a popped balloon. “What would account for it is what I’d like to know.”
Annie crosses her legs. “Sorry if this sounds rude, but I think that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. I really can’t believe you all are buying that. Hooves, Aunt Brenda? Really?”
“Look,” Brenda says. “Just think about it. There’s no reason why Reynolds would lie about something like that, and there’s no reason to believe that a child wouldn’t have cloven feet. You’ve heard of Siamese twins, haven’t you? It’s one of those things that you might just have to see to believe.”
“I would have to see it to believe it, in that case.” Annie picks up one of Lou’s paper towels and goes to rubbing it across her forehead then down her cheeks.
“I could take you there myself and show you if you just can’t believe it. I’ve seen plenty of strange things in my day and there is nothing in this world that I’m beyond believing until I go see for myself,” Brenda says.
Ever since the separation, she’s become extra nervy. I learned that with the nail polish. Don’t challenge her.
“I think that’s a little exploitative, don’t you?” Annie says.
Me and Brenda and Lou look at each other, all of us thinking what in the world does she mean by that?
“We could all go up tomorrow,” I tell them. “I could bring some samples. We could give them to Wynette and ask if she’d like to throw a Mary Kay party? I’m sure she gets lonely up there, with just Bill around and that baby, hooved or not. I imagine she’d appreciate a little company.”
“Probably so,” Lou says.
“That’s a fine idea,” Brenda says. “Let’s do it. First thing tomorrow morning.”
“I’m not going,” Annie says. “It’s the most offensive thing I’ve ever heard of.”
“Ain’t no one offending nobody,” I say. “Just to check in on them is all.”
“We’re all going, Annie,” Brenda says. “You included.”
Today, her nails are zebra striped. She’s ready for anything.
The next morning, we pack into Brenda’s car. Lou’s sitting up front with her, and me and Annie are in the backseat. I’ve got my bags of make-up samples, order forms, lotions, creams, and catalogs. I even made a little gift bag for Wynette that has in it a few perfume samples, a free lipstick, and a coupon for a complimentary foundation with any order over twenty dollars, which is a steal. While we’re driving up there, I get to feeling soft-hearted, and drop in a few color samples, too, because I figure anyone that lives where Wynette lives will appreciate whatever she can get.
Wynette’s place is up in the hills. The higher we go, the more it’s all just trailers and trees. We go up and up and up until Brenda takes a sudden turn onto a little dirt driveway buried in the trees.
Wynette’s trailer is a sight in and of itself – blue and busted-up looking, strips of siding missing, trashy, I guess you could call it – but what mainly catches my eyes are the loose pigs running around the yard. Maybe half a dozen of the little suckers, some pink, some spotted black and white, zipping this way and that. The driveway is more potholes than earth. We’re banging down it, passing pigs that are just standing there looking at us like we’re the strange ones.
“Would you look at that,” Brenda says. “Pigs running around like loose chickens.”
“If that ain’t something,” Lou says. “I hope they don’t bite.”
“Pigs don’t bite,” I say. “Boars bite, but pigs like these ones, I’d say they’re harmless.”
Brenda parks and we all get out. There’s toys spread all around the yard, hidden in the tall grass. I take a few steps, watching for broken beer bottles, needles, or anything that might spell devilry. You never know what some people will leave lying around in their grass.
“Watch your step, ladies,” I say, one hand on the car, the other holding my makeup bag, taking my time through the jungle of grass. Meanwhile, Brenda and Annie take off towards the porch like they are in a contest to see who can get there the fastest to prove the other wrong.
There’s pig droppings all over the yard and even up on the porch steps, and I worry that we’ll slip and fall and break our necks. But we all get up to the door fine, no tumbles. Brenda gives us a look that asks if we’re ready and we all give her one back that means go ahead. She knocks on the door and steps back. A few seconds go by, then there’s footsteps coming from the inside of the trailer. We all look at each other and back to the door, bracing ourselves. The door opens and there’s Bill on the other side of it.
“Morning,” he says. He’s barefoot, in jean shorts and a stretched-out cotton shirt with a collar to it. His brown hairs a little shaggy, but otherwise, he’s a normal enough.
“Morning,” we all say back.
Then it’s a staring contest for what seems like all eternity.
“Can I help ya’ll with something?” he says.
“Is Wynette home?” Brenda asks.
“I’ll get her,” Bill says. He disappears back into the trailer. I can see light from a television in the back of the room, but overall, it’s like all the power’s off and all the curtains are drawn. Like vampires, I think. Then, and this near grips my heart, a child runs past the door, just a flash of skin and diaper before he’s gone out of view.
Brenda turns and gives us a look. “There it went,” she whispers.
“Shhhh, Aunt Brenda,” Annie says.
“Get your bag ready, Nance,” Lou says to me.
I grip my makeup bag with both hands, rehearsing the lines in my head.
Wynette comes to the doorway, wearing an over-sized t-shirt that I imagine must be Bill’s. She’s barefoot and not bothering with a bra. Her hair’s pulled back and greasy looking, and her eyes are puffed like she hasn’t slept in days. She crosses her arms around her skinny little self and says, “Something I can help ya’ll with?”
“We’re just going around, asking women in the area if they’d like to throw a Mary Kay party,” Brenda says. “It’s a real good way of making extra income.”
I hold out the gift bag. “We brought you a gift bag with some free samples in it so you can familiarize yourself with the product. There’s some lipstick and perfume samples here. And I slipped you a coupon for a free foundation, though you have to purchase twenty dollars in product, of course. Can’t be giving everything away for free, isn’t that right?” I reach out and touch her shoulder, giving it a little friendly push, like I would with anyone, but she just raises her over-plucked eyebrow at me and frowns.
“Not interested,” Wynette says.
We all get quiet for a moment, and it’s just the sound of the pigs in the driveway, snorting around like they do.
“But it’s free,” I begin to say, but I’m interrupted by one of them pigs running up the steps and straight into the trailer, though not before knocking into poor Lou and sending her for a spill.
“Awww,” she says. Then another pig runs in after the first one, right across her legs. “Awww, awww, awww,” she says, and scrambles to get up. I reach down to help her, and we clear a path in case the pigs decide to come running back out. Wynette’s still standing in the same place, more or less, watching us like nothing happened.
“Are those your pets?” Annie asks. The two of them must be near about the same age, just a hair into their twenties. “In Brooklyn, there’s a guy in my building who has a pet pig. It’s actually very sanitary, despite what some people might think.” She turns and looks at us, and then back at Wynette.
“Bill breeds them and sells them at auction,” Wynette says, looking over her shoulder back into the trailer. “Just those two are pets.”
A pair of small fingers wraps around Wynette’s leg, and the head of the child peaks out from behind her. Her hair’s short and white-blonde, and she’s got red sauce smeared all around her mouth. She’s normal looking, overall, though I can’t get a glimpse of her feet on account of her hiding behind Wynette like she is.
“Willbaa,” the child says, looking up at us and pointing a finger towards where the pigs ran off to inside.
“Isn’t that sweet,” Lou says. “Does the baby get along with them?”
“Baby?” Wynette says. “Katy’s near three by now. I wouldn’t call that a baby.”
“Of course not,” Brenda says. “She’s practically a young lady.”
Wynette doesn’t say anything. One of the pigs walks back into the doorway, pink and bristled, four times the size of a Thanksgiving ham. The child walks right over to it and throws both arms across its back and tries to climb on. She grabs around the pig’s neck, bless its heart, and holds onto it while the pig steps out onto the porch, dragging her along with it. Then, of course, it’s plain as day that what we’re looking aren’t hooves but two strips of burlap tied around that child’s feet and held together with twine.
Shameful. Never in all of my years have I seen such a thing.
Wynette catches us staring. “She’s grown out of her other shoes and I’ve not had a chance to make it to town yet to buy her a new pair. She’s always running outside, you know, and I don’t want her stepping in pig shit.”
“Of course,” Brenda says.
Lou’s mouth simply drops. So does Annie’s. I’m tempted to tell Wynette that she probably ought to carve out some time to get into town for some new shoes, but I don’t. I know when a thing’s not my business.
“We could bring some back up for you,” Annie says. “Just tell us the size she wears. It’d be no bother on our part.”
“That’s a great idea,” Brenda chimes in. “We could go today.”
We all nod. I’m thinking what else that child probably needs. Diapers. Clothes. Toys. We could all pitch in and get her a few nice things, and maybe even something for Wynette and Bill, too.
“We’re fine,” Wynette says. “I’d appreciate you getting off my property and not coming back.” She lifts the child away from the pig, steps back inside, and shuts the door. Inside, the girl starts crying for her pig. The pig stands there looking at the door, pressing its snout against the wood.
I hang the gift bag on Wynette’s door knob and follow the girls down the steps and back through the yard. Once we’re in the car, Brenda says, “I guess she’s got bigger things to worry about besides throwing a Mary Kay party,” and we all laugh except for Annie, though by now, it’s obvious the girl has no sense of humor.
I want to maintain the jovial mood. I try to think of some little joke to tell, something harmless and clever. But before I can, Brenda hits a pothole in the driveway that throws us all for a loop.
“Watch out, for crying out loud,” I holler up at her. “You’re gonna kill us.”
“I didn’t know it’d be that deep,” Brenda says. She laughs again. I laugh too, but I grab my seat belt and hold on tight.