Big Cactus by Sylvia Wilkinson
Publication Date: December, 2014
Sixteen-year-old Benny Foushee, deemed by his father as going-nowhere-fast, embarks on a trip from North Carolina across the United States with his 84 year old Aunt Lucy, his dog Polar and his 1965 GMC pickup. Benny’s quest, a challenge both overwhelming but irresistible, is to deliver Aunt Lucy to the big cactus, the giant saguaro in Arizona that she had dreamed of seeing since her own daddy put images of the American West into her teenage brain. Benny’s roadway adventures with Aunt Lucy and her on-again, off-again mind, become intensified when he rescues a beautiful young runaway heiress who calls herself Tennessee, stranded alone beside the road with her father’s broken Porsche. The foursome, stuffed in the cab of Benny’s old pickup, push onward to the cactus: Aunt Lucy with hopes to bring home a story to overrule her braggart brother, Tendall; and Benny, smitten with first love, fearful he cannot bring home alive the old woman he left with.
Watch Sylvia read from her novel during a recent visit to the University of Colorado Libraries.
“A name from the past: Sylvia Wilkinson’s forthcoming novel, Big Cactus (Owl Canyon Press, $24.95 hardcover) with rave blurbs from Annie Dillard, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton and Fred Chappell. A Durham native, Wilkinson is the author of such classics as “A Killing Frost,” “Cale” and “Bone of My Bones.” This one’s about a 16-year-old’s mission to lead his 84-year-old Aunt Lucy on a road trip from North Carolina to see the giant saguaro cactus in Arizona.” Read more here.
─Dannye Romine Powell, The Charlotte Observer
Sylvia Wilkinson, formerly a Motorsports Correspondent for AUTOWEEK, currently covers auto racing for The World Book Encyclopedia. Among her grants were National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships. BC (Before Computers) she did timing and scoring for Keke Rosberg, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser, Sr, Paul Newman, and others. She is the author of many books, including The Stainless Steel Carrot: An Auto Racing Odyssey, and the novels A Killing Frost, Cale and Bone of My Bones. Big Cactusis her 7th novel.
Wilkinson held teaching positions at the University of North Carolina, William & Mary, Hollins, Sweet Briar, Washington University and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and is a teaching scholar with The National Faculty.
Big Cactus is available from Follett Library Services, YBP, Coutts, Brodart, Baker & Taylor, and Ingram Book Distributors.
“What are you doing in the floor, Aunt Lucy?”
“Benny, look at the pretty dress I wore for Rupert’s wedding,” she answered.
Rupert is my daddy. Aunt Lucy, his old sister was flat on her back in her living room floor, wearing a blue dress big enough for my fat sister Ethel. If I had on something that wrinkled, Mother would ask me if I slept in it, knowing I really hadn’t.
“Sure glad I could find it in time to wear to yours.”
“Aunt Lucy, I’m not old enough to get married. I just finished tenth grade. I’m here to get you for church.”
She didn’t answer and swatted me away like I was a fly when I stooped to help her up. I put the macaroni and cheese Mother sent in her refrigerator, while Aunt Lucy crawled up in her rocker.
I already explained twice that the rented white coat I showed her last week was for the prom not my wedding. I tried a new answer, talking real loud: “Not going to be a wedding, Aunt Lucy. Me and Valinda busted up. She got mad because my new dog got mud on her prom dress. I’ll tell you about it after church. Now go hurry into your Sunday dress. And either put on two brown shoes or two black shoes.”
She stood up, grabbing the Arizona Highways out of my hand that Mother told me to bring her. I forgot I was holding it. “You got it,
Benny. That’s the one. The one with the big cactus I got to go see real soon. You can take me.”
The cactus on the front looked like it was holding the sun between its green fingers, like a cowboy movie without the cowboys. I don’t think there’s anything like that cactus over in Duke Gardens. “Mother finally found the magazine in the attic, Aunt Lucy.” I don’t think she heard me.
“There’s a lot more tadpoles in the sea, Benny,” Aunt Lucy muttered as she shuffled back towards her bedroom with the magazine open in front of her. “I always figured that Valinda girl wasn’t good enough for my favorite nephew,” she added after she walked into the wall, said “Shit!” and backed up like a windup toy. Her only nephew. And she never even met Valinda. But as Mother would say: Remember Benny, it’s the thought that counts.
“There’s some chocolate covered cherries hid in my cedar chest. Help yourself,” Aunt Lucy yelled from the bedroom. “Least you asked my opinion before you tied the knot. Wish Rupert had. This is the book I been looking for, Benny. How about this? A cactus tall as a five-story building that’s two hundred years old. I’ll make you a deal. You drive and I’ll cook.”
“Aunt Lucy, please, read that magazine later. Mother is going to have a fit if we make her late for church.” I think Aunt Lucy has about as much interest in church as I do. I’d whole lot rather work on my truck but Mother would give me that “working on the Sabbath” stuff. Or I could go in to McDonald’s where that friendly cheerleader with the big boobs works the drive-through and get Aunt Lucy some fries. Got to wash my truck first.
“Papa couldn’t stop talking about that big cactus, Benny. He come home from out there with nary one of them turquoise baubles they show in here. Cost too much. Stole a little biddy ring off a drunk Indian. I still got it somewhere…”
“Aunt Lucy, get your church dress on right now.”
I finally got her ready and up in my truck, her nose still in that magazine. She didn’t even notice my new plaid seat covers. “Listen to this. It’s got thorns to keep stuff from stealing its water.” Some things she says are so goofy, they really tickle me. She sure was crazy about a plant she never met in person. I don’t think Aunt Lucy has any idea how far away that cactus is.
I used to imagine going out west too, but I didn’t imagine being a cowboy anymore. Didn’t interest me that much now that I got a truck, but I wouldn’t mind taking a trip. According to Aunt Lucy, Grandpa did have a big time out west. But something killed him here in Summit long before I got to meet him and she won’t tell me about it no matter how many times I ask. Daddy says he was too little to remember and Uncle Tendall just grunts and shakes his head and says he doesn’t want to talk about it. Mother tells me: “Leave well enough alone,” whatever that means. It means I’m going crazy until I find out what happened. I only knew one person ever who got killed and it was Sammy Barefoot who rolled over his tractor and mashed his head.
After church I heard Mother tell Daddy in the kitchen: “Rupert, you are delaying the inevitable. One of these days your sister Lucy is going to fall down and break her neck and who’ll get the blame? Me, that’s who.” I never mentioned about Aunt Lucy falling down. “Rupert, didn’t you notice she had on a black shoe and a brown shoe at church? I was embarrassed to tears. Benny, don’t you let that filthy dog in here. Why on earth you brought something like that home. Look at your complexion. Have you been sneaking chocolate down at Lucy’s again?” Mother could fuss at two people at once.
“You know, Mona,” Daddy said, “Black and brown look pretty much alike to me too.” Then he added one of his look how funny I am chuckles: “I bet Lucy has another pair of shoes in her closet just like them.” He went running out to the porch pretending she was going to pop him with the pan she was drying.
After we ate, Daddy, who has white hair and looks old enough to be my grandpa; my big sister Ethel who just graduated from high school; and Daddy’s real old brother and sister: Uncle Tendall and Aunt Lucy were sitting on our porch like they always were on Sunday, Uncle Tendall already three sheets to the wind. Most people figure they’re my grandparents since they’re old and we take them everywhere. We all live in different houses on the farm, ours about twice as big as Aunt Lucy and Uncle Tendall’s houses put together. I wanted to go out and drive some, maybe just go get Aunt Lucy some McDonald’s fries because she couldn’t stand Mother’s fried chicken, but I didn’t have any money left to get gas. I had to spend all I made last week working at the filling station on two used tires for the front. I was kind of stuck on the porch.
When I took a swig of my Coke, Uncle Tendall tossed out the first piece of red meat to his sister: “Bet you didn’t know Co-Cola used to be green?”
“It wont green,” Aunt Lucy growled back. “It come in a green bottle. Tendall’s color blind anyhow. If they turned the stoplights upside down, he’d kill hisself.” Her legs stuck straight out from the porch chair, one foot wearing a brown shoe and the other a black one. She got her dress changed OK but I should have made sure she got her shoes right. They appeared to both be for the same foot.
“Tendall lies so much he’s got to pay somebody to call his dog.”
“Talk about lying, Lucy, I ain’t even got a dog.”
I petted my new dog Polar. I couldn’t ever forgive Uncle Tendall for
shooting my last dog when he got drunk hunting and mistook him for a bear. He wouldn’t have an excuse with this dog. This dog is white not black like Bear was and there aren’t any polar bears around here. Uncle Tendall had forgotten to button his fly, his polka dot old man under britches poking out like a flower in his crotch. “Co-Cola was so green,” he snorted. I would take Aunt Lucy’s side if I knew for sure it wasn’t ever green.
“Just one Sabbath,” Mother said, taking a Kleenex out of her pocket and wiping off her porch chair seat, “I wish to witness a civil conversation between adults. Eighty-four and eighty-two years old respectively,” she shook her head and sputtered, “Oh me. Ignore me. There is no respect for anyone or anything in this family.”
“You must have that number written down somewhere,” Aunt Lucy grumbled. “I don’t remember eighty-four.”
“Don’t even know how old you are,” Uncle Tendall sneered, wobbling down the steps holding his arms out like he was on a tightrope. He disappeared around the house.
“You are eighty-four years old, Lucy,” Mother insisted. “And Tendall is eighty-two.” They fussed until Mother said: “Now, can we change the subject? Let’s find something agreeable.”
“The mother cactus looks after the baby cactus until it grows up and kills her.”
“Lucy, I don’t know how on earth you see that as something agreeable. Tendall! Oh my Lord Jesus Christ! Tendall Foushee!”
I couldn’t believe it. My own mother said Jesus Christ Tendall Foushee. Running back in the house, she squealed loud enough to bust a eardrum and let the screen slam shut so hard behind her the windows rattled, which would have got me sent to my room. My sister Ethel turned white as a bed sheet. Even Aunt Lucy got awful quiet.
Uncle Tendall stood at the top of the porch steps, holding a red and black snake. The snake stretched about three feet between his fists, its tongue flipping out of his right fist and the tip of its tail whipping up and down out of his left. All I could hear was Daddy switching between chuckling and coughing, like something went down the wrong pipe.
“Red next to yellow will kill a fellow,” Tendall recited like he just got called on at Sunday School, then added with a nod towards his snake, “Red next to black is a friend of Jack.” He shook the snake’s head at Aunt Lucy before he took it down the steps and turned it loose in Mother’s garden.
“Jack Shit!” Aunt Lucy yelled and spit snuff at him, missing him a
“Lucy!” Mother’s voice was muffled because she was behind the
screen door. I’d never have the nerve to say shit in front of Mother but I could say it at Aunt Lucy’s when I felt like it.
“OK, little brother,” Aunt Lucy said to Uncle Tendall. “You’ve got our attention. Now what you going to do with it?”
Well, what he was going to do with our attention was start telling his same old World War II story again that we have all heard about a hundred times about how his parachute got caught on a church steeple in France on D-Day. His war story was pretty good the first time: a paratrooper in his company sucked like a moth into a building our bombers set on fire, dead men hanging in the trees, Uncle Tendall swinging till he took his pocketknife and cut himself loose. He hid in a clump of trees and got surrounded by cows. He started shooting Germans and cows till they got him in the shoulder. The Germans, not the cows. Then he got a Purple Heart. I don’t even like to see the same movie twice.
Later in the afternoon, when I walked Aunt Lucy back to her house, holding her arm with her trying to pull away from me, I asked: “Do you think that the cows mooing was why the Germans found Uncle Tendall in the bushes?”
“Cows ain’t got good sense when they need milking. Tendall was one sorry milker.”
“Did he really get shot?”
“How come he never shows us his bullet hole?” “Because it’s in his butt.”
“He said it was in his shoulder.”
“Nope,” Aunt Lucy repeated: “The hole’s in his butt.”
“Why didn’t you tell on him for lying, Aunt Lucy?”
She didn’t answer, pulling away from me and shortcutting through the garden, stepping across tomato rows on ground rough enough to turn a man’s ankle. And she did it carrying her big black purse, a fist full of chicken scraps for her cat, Elijah, with one shoe on the wrong foot. I wanted to holler for my mother. Look at her. She’s OK on her own. Nobody around here listens to me or Aunt Lucy either. I believed her about the bullet Uncle Tendall must of got when he was running away, not being a hero. She had just told me something important that nobody else knew. But what I was about to find out, no matter what Aunt Lucy did good from now on out, nothing was going to change the way things were going to go for her.