Cinnamon Girl

Chapter 1

Thanks to Mattie, my grandfather’s second wife, I spent my childhood as a small adult.

Mattie spirited me away from my alcoholic mother before I was two years old. The story Miz Johnny told me was that Carmella (my mother) was living in a two-bedroom trailer on the outskirts of town when Mattie stopped by one day to check up on me after my dad and my mom had split up. Mattie found my mother sprawled on the couch wearing high heels and a black slip with an empty Jack Daniels bottle tucked in the crook of her arm, and me trapped and crying in a playpen, wearing nothing but a dirty diaper. Mattie took me away that day, and then sometime after that – the details get fuzzy – my mother got on a Greyhound bus and never came back. My dad lit out for the West Coast shortly after she left. Granddaddy died of a stroke when I was four, and I hardly remember him anyway. That left me and Mattie and Miz Johnny, a maid whose family had been interlinked with mine since the days of slavery – not one of us related by blood but bound together nonetheless – in a big brick house on a hill in Augusta, Georgia, a few blocks from the Savannah River.

My dad, Billy Burnes, never made it as far as the West Coast. He spent a couple of years at Southern Illinois University before dropping out to become a D.J. at a Top-40 radio station in St. Louis. He visited us every Christmas and usually for a week or so during the summers. The summer after I turned ten years old, he brought a pregnant girl named Cleo with him and said she was his wife. We never saw or heard from my mother. Mattie never mentioned her. And who was I to miss a person I couldn’t remember? Especially when I had Mattie and Miz Johnny. Mattie spoiled me, and Miz Johnny disciplined me when she could catch me.

Before marrying my wealthy grandfather, Mattie had been a world-class opera singer. In order to entice her in to marrying him, he bought the old theater in downtown Augusta so she could turn it into her very own opera house. She was getting older anyway so she took the offer. While other kids stayed home at night watching “Bonanza,” I was at the Southern Opera Guild. For hours I played dress up in elaborate costumes or had swordfights with imaginary enemies in the rehearsal room. During performances I would turn pages for the pianist or sit in the lighting booth and read cues for the spotlight man. When rehearsals ran late, I slept backstage on the piles of black curtains while the sound of arias shrouded me like a dream. Sometimes I spied furtive kissing in the rehearsal room. Sometimes men kissed other men, sometimes they kissed women whose husbands were at home, drinking scotch.

I didn’t have friends my own age, but it felt as though Mattie’s friends were my friends. Since I considered myself a small adult, and they considered themselves large children, we met somewhere in between. Our house was the central location for evening parties where they sang showtunes around the Steinway that Carl played, hunched over the keys, a cigarette in his mouth, a highball glass on a stack of sheet music. I usually stretched out underneath the piano with my marbles or plastic horses and created stories till I fell asleep.

When I was twelve, a girl named Gretchen moved from half-way across the world with her German father and American mother. She was an outsider, like me, and for the first time I had a friend my own age. I liked Gretchen a lot, but the real attraction was her older brother, Wolfgang, an aloof philosophical boy with shaggy hair and bushy eyebrows, a boy who made my teeth sweat the first time I saw him.

Beyond the borders of our small town, all kinds of things were going on. Rock music had conquered the world, men in puffy white suits were jumping on the moon, a crazy man shot down Martin Luther King, Jr. and another one gunned down Bobby Kennedy. After both killings the house on the hill went into mourning though I didn’t understand why we cried over the deaths of men we had never met. There were riots and revolutions and hippies and Woodstock and all kinds of things the good citizens of Augusta, Georgia, tried to ignore, but the world would not be ignored. It was slouching toward us inexorably and arrived in a rain of smoke and ash in May, 1970. But it was not the brutal race riot that ended my perfect childhood. My perfect childhood dissolved a few months earlier when something growing inside Mattie suddenly emerged and stole the life out of her. I was fourteen years old.