“You don’t understand me,” I used to tell Momma.
“Oh, I understand, baby. I understand.” That’s what she’d say, usually with her eyes all watery and red.
Momma and I lived in a singlewide off highway 219 in LaGrange, Georgia. I hated that rusted out piece of tin, but Momma put up pretty curtains and painted my room pink. It didn’t matter, though. Even if we lived in a big house on a hill, I still would have hated living in LaGrange.
There wasn’t anything to LaGrange, just houses and trailers and ratty old stores and ratty old people. There were folks like me and Momma and folks who avoided people like me and Momma.
That about sums up LaGrange.
Momma used to tell me about her dream of visiting New York, although she never got further than Atlanta. She had me when she was about sixteen, near as I could figure, and I guess she changed her plans. She said she didn’t regret staying in LaGrange because her mother was sick and her sister, Mae, needed her when she married Uncle Tyrone. As a child, I never knew what that meant, but I found out soon enough. Uncle Tyrone never could keep a job, and when he was home he’d drink and hit Aunt Mae.
“Why don’t you come live with us, Mae?” I remember hearing Momma asking my aunt. She didn’t know I was in the next room with my ear pressed up against the thin trailer wall. “You don’t need him.”
After a long silence, I heard Aunt Mae say, “If I lose him, I’ll be alone like you.”
She cried and said she was sorry, but Momma said, “It’s my choice, Mae. And I ain’t alone. I got Emma.”
When I heard Momma say my name, I didn’t know whether to feel proud or start blubbering like a baby.
Momma’s momma died when I was little. She used to tell me stories about my granddaddy, who she said was a hero and got killed in World War II. I never saw a picture of him, and when I got older I realized the dates weren’t right for him to have been in World War II, but I never said anything.
I never knew my daddy.
Whenever I asked Momma about him, she’d say, “You’re my baby, baby.” And we’d giggle like we shared some secret that just us girls knew.
She did her best by me. I know that now. She had some hard times, but she used to talk with me like we were friends, even when I was so mean I didn’t even want to talk to myself. Like when I was about fifteen and I started liking boys. I sure gave her fits and made myself miserable. My momma must have loved me something fierce not to have beaten my bony ass when I went through my boy phase.
“Why you always have to go off with those kind of boys and not good church-going boys?” she’d ask. “You know they just want one thing from you.” Her eyes would get watery and she’d look away. “Girls got to be careful, baby. You got to learn that.”
She’d beg me, lecture me, give me chores so I couldn’t go out at night, even have the preacher come to our trailer and pray for me, but somehow I always found a way to be with some boy she didn’t like.
“Momma,” I’d tell her. “You don’t understand.”
“Oh, I understand, baby. I understand.”
When I was younger, I’d like staying home and talking and playing with her. We used to lay on the couch, me with my head in her lap, and she’d ask me where I wanted to live when I grew up. I’d say, “New York,” or “Timbuktu,” or “Mars.” Momma would laugh from so deep inside that sometimes I’d get dizzy from my head bouncing around so much.
I don’t remember Momma laughing like that once I started hanging out with boys. When a boy called, something came over me. It was like, if I didn’t go I might be missing something. Momma would get mad when I told her I was going out instead of staying home with her, but in the end she’d just say, “Be careful, baby.”
At the time, I didn’t know what it was I liked about boys, but I knew they had something I didn’t have and I wanted it.
No, it wasn’t what they have dangling between their legs. I know I made a fool of myself more than once because of that damned thing, but it wasn’t ever something I really liked, to tell the truth. It was more a means to an end. If I let them put it in my mouth, I knew I wouldn’t get pregnant like Momma, and they’d let me ride in their cars. And the more I rode in their cars, the better chance I had of getting out of LaGrange someday.
The other thing I did was read. I read a lot, at least for a LaGrange girl. I used to read tourist guidebooks and romances and novels. I remember the first time I read Carson McCullers’, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. It was like I found a kindred spirit, a twin sister no one told me I had. I read all the books by her in the LaGrange library, and when I found out she was from Columbus, Georgia, not far from LaGrange, I knew I had to visit the town. I just wanted to walk the streets, see the people, and breathe the same air as she breathed.
I talked Earl Larson into driving me to Columbus. I’m sure Momma would have done it had I asked her, but it was something I needed to do without her. Even if I had to promise Earl something extra for the ride.
I was surprised how close Columbus was to LaGrange and how small a town it was. In fact, if it wasn’t for Ft. Benning being in Columbus, I bet it wouldn’t have been any bigger than LaGrange. I walked around Columbus a little while, half expecting to see John Singer, the deaf mute in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, talking to himself with his hands. But all I saw were folks just like Momma and Uncle Tyrone and Aunt Mae. We had burgers at a place called Big Ben’s Grill and it wasn’t any different than Mike’s Grill in LaGrange.
“I told you Columbus ain’t no thing,” Earl said as we ate our burgers. “Same as anywheres else.”
“I reckon that’s so,” I said, but in my mind I began writing a novel set in LaGrange that would win me so much attention I’d move to New York, just like Carson.
And that’s what I did. At least, I started writing the novel. I’d get up early, before the school bus came, and write. And I’d write as soon as I came home after school was out. Momma was so proud she used to buy me composition books or pencils on her way home from work. She even came home one day with a big hardback book on how to write a novel. It must have cost her a whole day of tip money from her job at Mike’s.
There was this one teacher, my eleventh grade English teacher, Miss Hanover. I showed her my novel and she called Momma and told her I had talent and should go to college. She said my grades were good enough to get into the University of Georgia in Athens, and she even said she’d help me study for the SATs.
Momma was so happy that when she came home that night she danced. She put on the radio and she started jumping up and down and shaking herself like she was throwing a fit.
“Momma,” I said. “No one dances like that.”
“I do, baby. This is my baby-go-to-college dance.” And she turned and wiggled her backside, and when she turned around again, I started dancing with her.
I tried showing her some moves but she said, “You do it your way, baby. Don’t worry ’bout me.”
Soon after that, a slow dance came on the radio and I put on a real serious face and said, “Momma, I ain’t dancing slow with you.”
And she laughed like she did when I was a little girl, from deep inside. “Good,” she said. “I need to rest.”
Momma was sweating something fierce and she could hardly catch her breath, so I got her some water and made her lie down on the couch and take off her shoes. She seemed better, but that night I heard her on the telephone whispering to Aunt Mae that she needed to go to the hospital. When I ran to her, she told me she was all right and wanted me to go back to sleep so I’d be ready for school in the morning.
But she wasn’t all right. She looked pale and she could hardly breathe. I held her until Aunt Mae came and we went to the hospital together.
It turned out she had heart failure, just like her mother, and the doctors said there wasn’t much they could do for her because it had gone untreated for a long time. Momma said she didn’t want to worry me so she’d been ignoring it. She got weaker and she swelled up and found it harder and harder to breathe. Eventually, she couldn’t work anymore. A nurse came to the trailer to show her how to use an oxygen tank to help her breathe.
Aunt Mae quit her day job and got one working nights so she could be with Momma when I was at school. Even Uncle Tyrone worked steady and gave us extra money.
I started working at Mike’s Grill after school. I felt bad not helping more.
“School is your job,” Momma told me. “You just concentrate on those tests to get into college,” she said. “You gonna be a writer, baby. You gonna go places.”
But I didn’t score high enough on the SATs to go to the University of Georgia. There were other colleges I could have gone to, but I couldn’t leave Momma, and even if tuition was paid for, we needed the money I was making at Mike’s, especially when Uncle Tyrone lost his job and couldn’t help us anymore.
I quit school my senior year so I could wait tables full time. Miss Hanover and Momma tried talking me out of it, especially since I was so close to graduating, but how else were we going to pay our bills? I promised them I’d take courses at night, but I never got around it. Besides, I wanted to get back to writing my novel.
I made time to write by not going out with boys. Every night, after Momma was asleep, I’d lie across my bed and fill up almost a whole composition book. I’d tell about the boys I knew in LaGrange and how they’d join the army or go to college and how the girls mostly stayed to take care of babies and old folks, except for the ones who married boys who took them away. And I made up stories about Momma and me and our plan to leave LaGrange and move to New York where I’d marry the doctor who operated on Momma and gave her a new heart.
In the story, I saved my tip money for the move. In real life, I couldn’t save anything.
And when I took Momma to Atlanta to see a heart specialist, he said Momma didn’t qualify for a new heart because her lungs and kidneys were damaged. So I put away my novel and my plans to move to New York, and I took care of Momma best I could.
It was less than a year later when she passed quietly in her sleep. And just when I started dreaming again of leaving LaGrange, Uncle Tyrone started drinking more than usual and he beat Aunt Mae so bad he put her into a coma. He ran off when the police came for him. After Aunt Mae got out of the hospital, she moved in with me. She’s slow and falls down a lot, but I take care of her the way I know Momma would want me to.
And I still wait tables at Mike’s Grill. Each New Year I make a resolution to get back to my novel. I still have all those composition books in a box in the back of my closet. I take them out every now and then and read them. It’s getting so I hardly remember writing the words anymore. They don’t sound like mine, and the people in the book, especially the boys, aren’t anybody I remember.
Except for Momma. I did a pretty good job of telling about her, and I cry every time I read the section where the daughter tells her she doesn’t understand.
“I understand, baby,” Momma says. “I understand.”
That’s where I plan to start the novel when I get back to writing it. But for now working and taking care of Aunt Mae takes up most of my time. I’ll go back to school when I can, I promised Momma that. But the biggest promise I made to her and to myself is to finish my novel.
And I’m going to dedicate it to Momma.
Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. He’s published hundred of stories, poems, and essays in print and online, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories, available at
A short film has also been produced based on his short story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting.”
Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH Leaving LaGrange:
Although the themes in this story—coming of age, loyalty to family, and the strength of the human spirit—are certainly not new ones, they are universal. Wayne Scheer has masterfully blended them in this bittersweet tale. The story is set in modern-day Georgia, but it could just as well be any time and any place, another attestation to its universality.