Lucille reckoned she ort to walk up the hill to Mama’s and check on her but figured it was too hot, too hot today to make her way up past the old corn crib, past the ramshackle shed and the falling-in barn, through the rusted gate in the high wall of vine-choked hedge and into the overgrown weeds of Mama’s yard. There was chiggers in the weeds, and fleas too, what with so many stray cats hanging round the back steps waiting for Mama to come out and throw scraps. She reckoned as how she ort to go on up there and feed them cats too, but she had no use for stray cats and Mama wasn’t her mama no how, though she’d been calling her that since she married Frank thirty-two years ago. Mama this and Mama that, Frank had insisted. Lucille was sweet enough about it to their faces but when she was alone she bit off the name so it thunked down hard on its end whenever she said it. Mama was too mean to live and that was no exaggeration. Mama’s a pill, she thought. Mama is sure a pill to swallow, bitter, bitter as gall as my Mother always said. Then she almost laughed but didn’t. She bit her lip and thought again about how she should just trudge on up the hill but it was too hot. She said Mama out loud, biting the word off and then she did laugh. She figured Mama was for sure the sweetest meanest old woman who’d ever lived. Mama was already eighty-five and Lucille reckoned she would just go on and live forever.
She heaved herself up out of her chair, standing a minute doing nothing. It’s too hot. Too damn hot and that old woman is too mean to die, no matter what Frank says. She picked up a basket of dirty laundry and carried it out to the washroom Frank had built onto the house just five years back. You’d think he’d of gotten to it sooner but he’d never been very handy with getting things done in a reasonable fashion. He’d get distracted with one job and start in on something else till pretty soon he’d have maybe seven or eight projects going at once and none of ‘em getting done. She put the white wash on, pouring in a chug-chug of bleach, breathing in the smell. Clean, clean. She stood dripping with sweat, it not even ten o’clock. Sweat running from her neck, pooling on the shelf in the small of her back. She lifted up her bra and tucked her shirt under there to soak up the sweat. Lucille is fat, so fat the kitchen floor shakes when she walks across it. She didn’t like to think about what she was doing to the supports in the floor. She’d been after Frank to crawl up under the house and see how things were faring but she figured she’d just go on and fall through before he’d get around to it. She’d do it herself but she was too fat to fit in the crawl space.
She’d lost track of how fat she was, just let herself go after her girl, Pam, was born ten years ago. She figured she was up to at least two-fifty if she could judge her weight by Mama’s. Lucille hadn’t been to the doctor in years but Mama was right at three hundred last month when she broke her ankle. She and Mama were about the same height and she guessed Mama had about fifty pounds on her. Yes, she should just go on up there and check on Mama but she sure wouldn’t do it till she’d fed her own child breakfast.
She was letting Pam sleep late, so she’d had the early morning to herself since Frank headed out to work at six-thirty. He worked at the cone plant, had since seven years back when the paper mill closed down. She reckoned she’d try to pick up some shifts in another year or so, after Pam was a little bit older and she didn’t have to worry about her being left alone at home in the afternoons when she got off the school bus. Good Lord how she loved the sight of that girl walking out the door in the morning to get on the bus. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her but she’d been forty when she’d had her and at fifty she felt too old to be raising kids though Lord knows her mother hadn’t had her till she was forty-five. She hollered to Pam then, thumping on the wall of the back bedroom. “Time to get up now. It’s after ten o’clock.” Lord that girl would be home all summer and her only break would be packing her off to church camp for a week the first of July. Those Baptists who ran the camp took that whole week to get those children saved, so the camp was free, thank god. Frank was as cheap as he was lazy and would never pay for summer camp no matter how inexpensive. She just wished the folks at the camp would go on and keep Pam till school started in the fall, then she’d have some peace. Course that wasn’t true neither cause Mama was laying around in that falling-in house up the hill just milking her broken ankle for all it was worth.
She put water on to boil for instant oatmeal. She yelled “What kind you want this morning?” and Pam yelled back “apples and cinnamon” and Lucille thought of how her mother would have a fit if she knew she was serving her child instant oatmeal, just rolling over in her grave, God rest her. Her mother had never approved of anything instant or short cut, not even cake mixes. Her mother had been pretty refined and proper, a real Southern lady. She’d never let Lucille call her anything but Mother or yes, Ma’am. She’d died when Lucille was just ten and after she was gone, all the refinement and culture went right out of the house with her. Lucille’s daddy was a dirt farmer, plain and proud, living off the land until he dropped in the harness himself, ten years after her mother died. He and Lucille’d done alright by themselves, her getting the meals and doing the washing and cleaning, him putting food in the cabinets and giving her a good bit of money for spending. She always had nice clothes and shoes and new notebooks for school but her mother hadn’t been there to show her things she’d needed to know, like how to shave her legs just right and what to do when she started her period. She’d started bleeding just a few days after Mother died. She hadn’t known what to do and had stuffed toilet paper up in there, trying to get the bleeding to stop. She knew what it was, had heard from her older cousins how that was supposed to happen to girls sooner or later, but she’d been too embarrassed and still too stunned over losing her mother to do anything except stuff toilet paper up in there until she broke down crying and wouldn’t come out of her room. Her Daddy didn’t know what to do and finally called Aunt Maybell, his sister, who came over and took matters into her own hands, going off to the store and walking back in the house with a box of Moddess and a couple of belts in a paper bag—she showed Daddy what was in the bag and then went into the bedroom and told Lucille “I brought you what you need. I’m sorry your own mama ain’t here to take care of you, but I’ll show you what to do. Now hush up your crying.” All that happened before Daddy put a bathroom in the house and Lucille didn’t know what to do with the pads after she used them, Aunt Maybell’d left that part out, so she just dropped them down the outhouse hole with the toilet paper and tried not to think about it. Daddy never said nothing, so she kept doing that until he put in the bathroom. Then she tried flushing one down the toilet. It wouldn’t go down and the toilet backed up and ran over. When Daddy saw what had stopped up the toilet, he explained to her all red-faced that she needed “to wrap them things up in toilet paper and throw ‘em in the trash.” They never mentioned her period again.
She ripped open the packet of oatmeal and poured it into a bowl, one of Mama’s old green, jewel-tea dishes. Lucille hated those dishes, always had. Mama’d given her the dishes when she and Frank had gotten married. When she gave them to her Mama said “I wouldn’t be giving you these at all ‘cept that I want Frank to feel right about eating your cooking cause it sure will be hard on him to have to do without mine.” Lucille just clamped down on her jaws when Mama said that, clamped down and said “Thank you, Mama. I sure have always loved jewel-tea dishes” and Mama said “Well, don’t go breaking ‘em. If you take care of ‘em they’ll be worth money some day.”
Mama was obsessed about how everything she had would be worth money some day, that’s part of the reason her house was falling in, so full of junk Lucille wonders why the house don’t just set down on its behind when Mama adds her three hundred pounds to the weight of all that junk stuffed into the back bedrooms —celebrity spoons, vintage velvet Elvis paintings, Hot Wheels cars, depression glass, every toy Frank ever had, crates of old china and silver and boxes upon boxes of photographs and letters, bank stubs, and Coca-Cola memorabilia. Mama saved ever blessed thing saying “Just you wait, just you wait. When I pass on Frank’ll be able to sell all my collections and have himself a right solid legacy.” Lucille had to keep herself from laughing out loud when Mama said things like that. Frank’s legacy would be the five hundred acres Mama was just setting on, letting the fields go back to scrub pine and thistle ever since her husband, Big Frank, had passed on fifty years ago.
Just as the kettle was starting to boil, the phone rang. She took the kettle off the eye, poured the water into the oatmeal and starting stirring, the phone ringing all the while. She stirred and yelled “Pam, this breakfast is ready now.” Pam yelled “The phone’s ringing, Mama” and Lucille yelled back “Yes, I can hear” and then Pam was in the kitchen rushing over to the phone. “Yes, Big Mama. Good morning. Yes, she’s here. I don’t know why she didn’t answer the phone. She’s standing right here” and then she said to Lucille, “Mama, it’s Big Mama and she wants to talk to you right now.” Lucille bit down hard on her jaws, trying not to glare at Pam. She wanted to smack her but she took the phone and remembered to breathe when Mama lit into her.
“Where you been? You planning on coming up here and helping me with this ankle? I can’t walk, the doctor said no walking and you know it. Are you planning on coming up here or not? I just called Frank and he said to call you and tell you to get on up here.”
“Mama, I’m sorry I ain’t got up there yet. I’ve been putting on washing and getting Pam’s breakfast. I’ll be up. I was just fixin to head up there.” Lucille heard her flat words, her voice dropping her words down to nowhere, down to the place where Mama never listened to a thing she said. She wanted to scream, but she didn’t.
“Well you sure ort to get up here right now. I’m telling you it’s turning hot and I can’t stand this heat without my window fan on. I could die fore you get up here. You coming up right now? You coming up right now or not?”
“I’ll be right up. I’m walking out the door. Would you like some blueberry muffins? I cooked some last night. Thought you might like some.” She knew Mama liked blueberry muffins, knew they were her favorite, but she also knew that Mama would say she would rather have blackberry or strawberry.
“Sure, bring em up if they’s fresh. You sure they’re not day-old? I’d rather they’s apple. You know I had to get to the toilet by myself this morning. I almost fell. You coming up here right now?”
“I’ll be right up. Right now.”
“You sure? You coming right now?”
“I’m walking out right now.”
“Don’t forget them muffins.”
“I’ve already got ‘em wrapped up. Goodbye, Mama.” She hung up and stood still. Pam said “You’d better go on up” and Lucille told her to hush. Pam rolled her eyes. She was dawdling, making spoon ridges in her oatmeal. “Mama, do we have any Fruit Loops” she asked.
“No and you know it. Eat your oatmeal.”
Pam said okay and then rolled her eyes again. Lucille hated it when she rolled her eyes that way, that teenage thing she’d taken to doing lately and her just ten years old. It was the tv, she knew, those tv shows she watched all the time, all those teenagers lacking the respect Lucille’d been raised to show to her elders. Just the other night during supper Pam had said “shut up” to Lucille when she’d told her to start in on the dishes. Well, Frank had lit into her, telling her to never say that to her mama again. Pam had shrunk up in her chair, looking down at her food the way she would when Frank got onto her. Then she shifted her eyes up and glared at Lucille. Lucille didn’t say a thing, just sat there liking it. She loved it when Frank took Pam in hand. Now she told Pam to finish eating and then start into cleaning her room. Pam whined and said that she wanted to walk over to her friend, Nancy’s, and Lucille said she could, letting her off the hook the way she always did, the way she gave in, unwilling to push, unwilling to make Pam stay in and do her chores cause she’d just as soon have her out of her hair.
“You goin up to Big Mama’s” Pam asked again. She was standing at the sink, running water into her half-empty bowl.
“Yes, yes. I’m going up to Mama’s. Don’t wash that oatmeal down the drain, you hear?” Lucille wanted to walk over to the sink and smack Pam. She’d told her over and over not to wash food down the drain. Pam turned off the water and dropped the dirty bowl into the sink with a clatter. Lucille breathed in and then out, biting the inside of her jaws, clamping down hard. Then she said “I’m going right now. You go pick up the clothes off your floor before you leave. Do that much. You hear?” Lucille knew that Pam wouldn’t do that much, that she’d leave those clothes on the bedroom floor till Lucille had to pick them up herself, but arguing with her wasn’t worth the effort. She walked over to the backdoor and slipped her bare feet into her flip-flops. “I’m going right now” she said as the screen door banged shut behind her.
On her way up the hill she thought of Frank at work, sweating in the heat but alone, just responsible for his job and nothing else. He had a thing to do every day and he went to work and did it, just did it. He thought all she did was lay around the house all day, waiting till four o’clock to put supper on so it’d be ready when he come in from work. “You got it easy, woman.” He’d say that and she’d say “I sure do. You’re right. I’m fixin to pick up some shifts at the plant soon as Pam starts school this fall.” Then Frank’d say “I don’t think you ort to, I think you ort to stay home. Who’d get my supper? You got it easy. Sides, Mama might need you. She’s getting mighty frail.”
She wanted to say how Mama wasn’t no more frail than she was, how Mama needed to shut up her mouth and go on and do her own housework. She’d been helping her for years, doing the floor scrubbing and cobweb sweeping. Mama’d say how she couldn’t stand to hunker down no more, how she was too old to get the broom up over her shoulders, too weak to tote around a bucket a mop water. “I need your help girl, you know it.” When Mama called her “girl,” her stomach knotted up. She couldn’t remember the last time Mama’d called her by her name.
She stopped by the blackberry briars, picked a red one and popped it in her mouth, rolled it around, bit down and winced. She loved the sour of it. When she was a little girl, her mother always said eating red berries would give her the runs and she’d smack her hands away from them so Lucille had to learn to sneak. She’d always loved the sour. She picked a few for her pocket, then she sat down on a log she’d put there so she could rest on the way up the long hill. She realized she’d forgotten them muffins and was glad she had. She ate the berries one at a time. The sun was high now and sweat was pouring down her face. It’s too hot, too hot.
She set there remembering the shower Mama said she’d give her when she and Frank got engaged. Mama said she wouldn’t use her fine tablecloth cause it was only for really special occasions. She said she wouldn’t serve nothing but those cheap little mints and some nuts, some watery sweet tea and a plain yellow cake. Lucille told her she’d bake things herself, that she wanted things to be really nice but Mama had ‘llowed as how she’d be keeping things simple. “You need to get them fancy ideas out from your head” she said. “Frank comes from plain people, not fancies like your Mama.” Lucille’s stomach fell when Mama said that, just started falling and didn’t stop. But she wouldn’t cry. On the day of the shower, she dished up the mints and nuts like Mama told her, poured out the tea before the guests got there, knowing the ice’d melt and water down the tea to nothing in the August weather. She did everything just like Mama told her. Frank had warned her not to cross Mama, said her heart was weak. “You cross with her and you’re liable to kill her.” She did just what Mama said.
Mama had a window unit in the living room, but she wouldn’t turn it on. Took too much power, money didn’t grow on trees. She hadn’t turned on that window unit since Frank had moved into his own house. When the women arrived, everybody sat in the living room sweltering. Mary Powell said it was sure hot. Everybody said it sure was. Mama told Lucille to bring in the rotating fan and set it on the tv, said that’d cool things off right quick.
Ever time Lucille opened a present, Mama said things like “who in the world picked that out,” and “I ain’t never seen no use for a toaster,” and “you better just pack them fancy linens away, you’ll stain ‘em sure.” She tried to ignore Mama, everybody tried to ignore her just like they always tried to ignore Mama, but nobody could say nothing over her constant stream of observations and statements of wisdom. It was a short shower, no games, no setting around joking with Lucille about the future, what was in store, how to handle Frank. While everybody was rushing to clean up, she overheard them whispering how “that girl sure has a hard row to hoe,” and “she’s in for it, she sure will have to bear up,” and “I wonder what she sees in that boy anyhow.” But she wouldn’t cry, she wouldn’t. She went into the washroom and held on tight to the sink. Nobody but Frank and Mama knew she was expecting. She was scared to death, she hadn’t told anybody. She threw up in the sink, making herself quiet. Then she cleaned up and went in to wash the dishes.
Over the years she’d realized that Frank had forced himself on her the first time, he’d held his hand over her mouth, he’d made her bleed for two days. But she hadn’t known what to expect except that relations with a man weren’t supposed to be fun. And she knew doing that before she was married was a sin and once it happened it seemed a greater sin not to stay steady with Frank and do what he wanted. When she missed her period two months running, she told Frank and he slapped her hard across the face. Then he drug her over to his house to talk to Mama. Mama said the path was clear, a quick wedding, a seven month baby. She said as how Lucille needed to shut her mouth and let her and Frank take care of things.
Two months after the wedding, she lost the baby. It was years before she’d get pregnant again. She’d laid on the floor of the bathroom, bleeding, cramping, knowing what was happening and part of her wanted to laugh, wanted to scream, wanted to yell “yes.” She knew what was happening. But when it was over, when she’d cleaned up the mess and wrapped that bloody, meaty thing in one of her best wedding linens and buried it in the backyard, she told Frank and he cried like a baby. That surprised her, that and how he pulled her into his lap and held her so tight she couldn’t breath. He said over and over how they’d try again, they’d try again. After that he treated her different, better, sometimes almost tender. And she continued right on, staying put, cooking, cleaning, hoping for another child, learning to like laying with Frank in the dark after they’d had relations. And learning over to time love him as much as she could.
She rolled the last red berry in her mouth a long time before she bit into it. Then she pulled the two halves out of her mouth and inspected them, thinking of the watery taste of wild strawberries and the pink taste of watermelon. Watermelon. Something cold and wet. The sun was almost directly overhead, it was almost dinnertime. She popped the berry halves back in her mouth and heaved herself up off the log, walked a little ways and then walked back, her hand up to her chest, her heart beating hard. She’d set still another minute to get her breath and then go on up the hill. She heard footsteps and looked up. There was Mama.
“Girl, you sick? Where you been? I had to come down this hill with my busted ankle to find you. You sick?”
Lucille got up fast, then balanced herself against a tree. “I reckon I got too much sun. I’m a little lightheaded.”
“Well, you look fine to me. You sure do like to take your time. What I’m supposed to do with this busted foot? I called Frank. He’s on his way home from work.”
“Mama, I was on my way up. I just set down to rest and got too much sun. It’s so hot.” She sat back down, her heart beating larger and larger in her chest.
Mama thumped her cane against the log and starting barking at her. “Well, get on up and come help me feed them cats. Get on up now. You hear?
Lucille didn’t budge.