~This story was first published in Shenandoah (1999).
Cat-Sue sings over the telephone into Jean’s ear, “We would just love to see the girls, and I’ve got a darling teenager to babysit, so we can all go out and party after the Saint Paddy’s parade.”
“Really,” Jean replies, slicing off a wedge of lemon meringue pie and eating it with her fingers before reaching under her sweatshirt to trace the lump in her right breast she’d found in the shower that morning.
“Plus,” Cat-Sue’s pitch rises. “I found a dance place where they play big band music in Underground Atlanta. You’ll love it. They’ve got a piano bar and they’ve even let me get up and sing!” She hums a few bars of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.
Henry-Lee gets on, roaring, “So, Jean, are you and Silas teaching those folks any English? Gotta speak English if they plan on enjoying the good life in this country! Something’s gotta be done.”
“Like what, Daddy?” she carves out a larger piece of lemon pie, inhaling it in one gulp, waiting for his latest C-SPAN soundbite.
“El Paso has the right idea if you ask me, putting up that big wall. They out to do the same thing out in California with high voltage electricity across the top! One jolt and their ass would be back in T.J. before you could say, ‘Tortilla flat!’”
“Have you ever thought about how fascist you sound?” Jean asks, licking meringue off the knife.
“Fascist, my ass! Got any better ideas? It’s the whole bastion of liberalization bullshit that’s got us into trouble in the first place. I’m talking about accountability.”
“I’m not getting into this with you, Daddy.”
“Into what?” he chuckles. “Now, wait just a goddamned minute, how are the children? Your Mama really wants to see y’all. I can throw some shark and state on the grill, and … hold on a minute … Christ almighty, Cat-Sue, the Béarnaise sauce just burned. I’ve got a great recipe going, and it just boiled over! So Jean, are we on for Friday night?”
Before Jean can answer, Cat-Sue gets back on the line. “His sauce is fine! You know Daddy! Stomachs first! Anyway, darling, we’ll go to the parade on Peachtree Saturday, and Sunday, after mass, we can take the dogs and kids to the Chattahoochee River and let ‘em run wild. Y’all don’t forget to bring some green!”
JEAN HANGS UP the phone, biting the skin around her index fingernail raw. She hasn’t told anyone about the lump yet. Not a doctor, not even her husband, Silas, who is apt to get hysterical, thinking of the awful possibilities.
Two other thoughts occur to her: That lemon pie is gone … and … My father didn’t used to be this way…. Ever since his 60th birthday, which coincided with his early retirement from being a baseball scout for the minor leagues, he spent long days at home, listening to talk radio, gradually developing a loathing of gays, immigrants and Democrats, peppering his homilies with the word “accountability.” All the years he was a scout, he never once mentioned politics. True, he was on the road most of his life, but when was home, he discussed batting averages, talent and brilliant young shortstops rising out of obscurity in the Delta. Now that he’d left all that behind, Henry-Lee claimed his new side career of developing putt-putt courses made him recognize how big government was squashing the little guy in business. “I have seen the light!” he’d say, pouring himself in another Scotch.
The new occupation provided a pittance so far, and he was constantly taking out loans to match the financing of backers. Jean’s eyes crossed whenever he began quoting figures of when the first million was due; deals that were sealed in stone also had a way of crashing in the final hour. She could tell her mother was nervous, but Jean was clueless as to how to advise her parents. They had very little savings, had long since spent Cat-Sue’s small inheritance, and their only income was Cat-Sue’s work as a tour guide for senior citizen groups. But Henry-Lee repeated again and again, “We’ve come too far to quit now, folks. This sumbitch has to succeed,” and so her mother went along, hoping for the best, taking her seniors on trips to Ireland, Scotland and the Holy Land, buying extra stashes of blessed rosaries to sell after mass on Sundays.
JEAN PICKS UP the newspaper, thumbing absently through the pages to find “Ann Landers” and “Dear Abby” whom she’s been reading faithfully since the age of nine. Both columns spotlight grieving adult children who wished they’d spent more time with their parents when they were alive.
Silas walks in the room, towel-drying the girls, who play leapfrog across the rug. Jean calls over the chaos, “How does Marietta sound? For Saint Patrick’s Day?”
“Do we get to drink green beer again?” he asks, combing Daisy’s hair, while Hannah turns somersaults. Jean watches Silas’s tapered fingers get the knots out of Daisy’s curls without her screaming. Jean can’t do it. Both girls always end up in tears. Silas is definitely the better parent. He can make gossamer wings out of Saran wrap, aluminum foil and hangers. He can do Origami. At restaurants, strangers stop to watch him fold napkins and menus into swans and frogs. Jean can make a paper airplane, nothing more. People like to remind Jean what a good husband she has, making sure she knows this.
“When would we leave?” Silas asks.
The girls squeal, “Yay, May-retta!”
“Can we go right now, Mama?” Hannah, age six, pleads, stroking Jean’s face. “Will Cat-Sue make red Jello with Cool Whip? Will Henry-Lee get me a sword?”
Jean grabs up both girls in her arms, wrestling them to the floor, yelling, “Maybe … if you’re good, you wild romping beasts!”
They giggle wildly, “More, Mama, more!” while Gertrude, their cat, views the horseplay with contempt from the top of the dusty stereo. The windows are wide open, and Jean breathes in the March breeze blowing down from the Blue Ridge Mountains as she lets the girls walk on her back in their bare feet. She loves the mountains — black-eyed Susans, tiger lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, thick leafy ferns, blueberries, fireflies, flying grasshoppers. It’s the flatlands that make her tense, and Marietta is flat.
She thinks about when Hannah was born. The first thing her mother said to her when she called was, “Congratulations. Now remember, I’m not the grandmother type. I’m Cat-Sue to the baby — not Meemaw or Grandma or Granny! Got it?”
Henry-Lee echoed, “Goes for me too! The name is Henry-Lee! No Gramps crap! I’m not some old fart.”
“And you’d better get the child baptized, sugar,” Cat-Sue continued. “I know you think you’ve taken a vacation from the Catholic Church at the moment, but the least you can do is walk into the bathroom and sprinkle some tap water on that child’s forehead! Hear? Make the sign of the cross and do it yourself, God forbid anything should happen and her soul would be floating around from here to eternity.”
“Bet your ass!” Henry-Lee shouted. “And another….”
“How are you feeling, sugar?” Cat-Sue interrupted her husband. “I can’t believe you didn’t use drugs during labor, you old pioneer, you! Why, when you were born, they knocked me out with plenty of gas, and I wasn’t even allowed to dangle my feet off the bed until a week afterward, but you’re so tough. Lord!”
“No, I’m not, Mother,” Jean finally cried out. “My breasts are engorged and impacted. They feel like wet sandbags. I made Silas go to Sears and buy me a 36 double D bra… I can’t bear the pain. Milk is exploding everywhere. What should I do?” Jean was on the verge of tears, black clouds of postpartum swooping overhead, as she sat on the futon nibbling on slices of cheese and honeydew. There was a silence on the phone before Cat-Sue replied, “Well, aren’t you the earth mother? My O.B. gave me pills that dried me right up, quick as you please. You should call up that hoochie-doo midwife doctor. She’d know more about it than me!”
IN BED THAT night, Silas wraps his arms around Jean as she grades papers quickly. She balances a bowl of yogurt and frozen blueberries on her knees. She eats the snack slowly, so she’ll still have something left when she picks up her latest books: It’s Easier Than You Think — The Buddhist Way to Happiness, Nellie Bly — Daredevil, Reporter, and Feminist and The Portable Chekhov. The fat books sitting by her bedside give her peace of mind, reminders of bigger worlds out there waiting.
She grows irritated grading the grammatical errors of her students: “He blows up his mind when he gets the anger;” “I been making strange noises for a long time,” but she and Silas have a system worked out. Since they both teach E.S.L. and literature at the college, they alternate lesson plans and grading week to week. Jean sees they’re also going to have to do some work on idioms and the unreal conditional, a rule that seems to sum up her state of mind. If I were a better daughter, then maybe I wouldn’t hate myself so much. If I were more compassionate, I wouldn’t be so disgustingly judgmental. If I were….
As Silas leans over to set the alarm, the mattress scoots six inches down from the box springs as it does every night. He hops up to shove it back against the wall. Jean looks to him. “Do you think we could have a headboard someday? Maybe even a footboard. Is that so much to ask out of life?”
“No, it’s not. Can I have a bite of that yogurt?”
Giving him a spoonful, she says, “It’s just that I’m tired of sticking loafers under the wheels to anchor the fool thing, so it won’t roll. It’s a stupid way to live. We should have a bed frame. We’ve been married seven years. It’s not out of the question.”
He kisses her neck, snuggling close to her with his book, The Idiot. Jean sets the pen down, whispering, “Silas?”
“Piano bars with big band music and parades are festive. The Chattahoochee River is a great place for a picnic. The girls love their grandparents. Why do I have to let it bring out the worst in me? Why can’t I just enjoy them? Live in the moment.”
“You can. Now come on. We’ll have fun. They’re good people.”
“I know they’re good people,” she, fingers the tiny lump, whishing she could roll it away, make it disintegrate. It doesn’t hurt. She feels it more when she drinks something hot or cold; a dull knot of sensation. She can feel it now, swallowing the frozen berries. She just wants to forget. She wants to forget about everything — the lump, listening to her father’s political lectures, which are sure to be the theme of the weekend. If only she could send Silas alone with the girls, but it’s been over a year since they’ve visited. Then it hits her. Suddenly, she knows how she will survive the weekend. “Silas,” she says, turning to him. “We’re going to take Lourdes with us.”
“Our student, Lourdes. The one who can’t get pregnant, and her husband beats her up. She needs time away.”
“Take Lourdes to meet your parents?”
“It’ll be the best thing for them. And we won’t tell them. It will be a surprise. She never gets to go anywhere. All she does is go to E.S.L. class and back to that apartment with the shit husband and to Mass on Sundays. She needs a break.”
“What if Lourdes doesn’t want to go? She might not feel comfortable.”
“Why wouldn’t she feel comfortable?”
“You don’t feel comfortable down there, and she’s pretty shy, Jean.”
“She’ll go. I’ll tell her it will be a good chance for her to practice her English.”
“I don’t know,” Silas replies.
“I do and it’s positively the right thing to do for everyone. My father will be forced to break bread with an illegal immigrant, which will help him see the human face of suffering and shut him up for once,” she says, already feeling better.
“Jean, don’t expect too much. From any of them,” Silas warns, but Jean isn’t listening. She thinks of how much Lourdes needs this holiday just to get away from her cruel husband whom she married too young and then couldn’t have his children. Now he mocks her for being thirty, barren, and trying to learn English. Although she has never met him, Jean hates him. She only knows the couple ended up in Asheville with cousins after spending a few years in Los Angeles, living in a converted garage in some place called West Covina. When Lourdes was barely fifteen, her own mother had put her under a car hood, next to the hot engine and paid the Coyote money to give her a better life in the United States. When she got to L.A., her long hair had been singed at the ends, her shoulders blistered and scorched. Jean thinks of Lourdes’s lovely brown eyes that brim with resignation as she practices verb tenses with idioms. I cry my eyes out. I cried my eyes out. I’ve been crying my eyes out. I have cried my eyes out. I had cried my eyes out. I will cry my eyes out. I have been crying my eyes out. I had been crying my eyes out. I will be crying my eyes out. If I cry my eyes out, I will need the Tylenol.
A trip to Marietta is just what Lourdes needs.
“NO GASOYINE! NO!” Daisy yells as they stop on the way to Georgia the following Friday night to fill up, Silas jumping out of the car. “Won’t take long, sweetie.”
Daisy stares at him, warning him, “One minute, daddy,” stretching out a finger.
As Silas pumps gas, he looks into the back seat where Hannah, Jean and Lourdes sit. A red Coke sign flashes in the window of the gas station, advertising Old Fashioned Bottled Coke. As Jean goes in to pay for the gas, she hears the cashier say to a customer, “You mean you never ate a Moon Pie? Lord, they used to have Moon Pie festivals when I was a girl. Best way to eat’em is to put’em in the microwave for thirty seconds. Puffs right up. Nothing better.” Jean looks at the customer, who seems unconvinced. She lays ten dollars on the counter and says, “Number six.”
Walking outside, Jean hopes Lourdes doesn’t mind sitting in the back all the way to Georgia squashed together, since Daisy refuses to move. Thank God their car is too old for air bags. Even if they are to move her car seat into the back and insist she stay there, she’ll cover her mouth with both hands and scream until she vomits.
Silas asks, “Do we need anything else? Lourdes, would you like anything?”
“No, thank you,” says Lourdes, turning to Jean, who climbs into the car. “Teacher, are you sure it is no problem for me to come?”
“No problem at all!” Jean assures her, wishing she’d stop asking. It had taken an hour on the phone to convince her, and they had to pick her up when her psycho husband was out of the apartment. “We’re going to have a great time, right girls!” Jean says brightly. “And Lourdes, you might find my father is a little … loud. It’s just his way. He’s a good man.”
“Very loud!” Daisy agrees.
Hannah whines, kicking Jean hard in the calf, “We should go back home and get Gertrude! I told you and told you!”
Jean grabs her calf in pain but she can’t yell at her child in front of Lourdes.
“Who is Gertrude, teacher?” asks Lourdes.
“Our cat,” Hannah explains. “Mama left her at home.”
“All alone,” wails Daisy from the front seat.
“Outside,” adds Hannah.
“Look, girls, do you want Cat-Sue’s and Henry-Lee’s big dogs to chew that damn cat to pieces?” Jean isn’t exactly shouting.
Hannah flinches, reaching for Lourdes’s hand. Jean hates herself.
“Why Cat-Sue’s dogs eat the kitties, Mama?” Daisy rubbernecks around in her car seat.
“I don’t know, sweetie … they probably wouldn’t … Gertrude has tons of food. Mama’s sorry, Hannah … I’m tired and cranky,” Jean strokes her daughter’s hair.
“That’s okay, Mama,” Hannah replies. “Is it hard being a mother? Where are your children, Lourdes?”
“I don’t have….” Lourdes smiles lovingly at Hannah.
“Why not?” Hannah asks.
“I hope…someday. I pray in the church for them to come,” Lourdes says.
“We don’t go to church,” Hannah explains. “But sometimes we pray at night. Cat-Sue and Henry-Lee make us go to church when we visit.”
“Church is too expensive! Too long!” says Daisy.
“That’s enough, girls,” Jean says. Lourdes doesn’t need to know everything.
“It’s very hard being a mother,” Hannah says, knowingly.
“Very hard,” Daisy sighs.
Silas sticks four cherry suckers into the window. “Who wants Tootsie Pops?”
“Me, me,” howl the girls, grabbing the suckers. Jean gives one to Lourdes and takes one, too, happy for the taste of hard cherry on her tongue. She squeezes Lourdes’s hand, wanting her to know everything is going to be fine.
A FEW HOURS later, the girls and Lourdes asleep, they drive past signs to Pigeon Forge, Dollywood, Strawberry Plains and on into Knoxville, where Jean thinks about her third cousin who is a deacon at Saint Francis Catholic Church in Fountain City. Silas asks, “How’s that old deacon doing?”
“I heard he has Parkinson’s disease,” Jean says, wondering if she should speak of the lump in her breast now with Marietta still almost two hundred miles away, but she doesn’t want Lourdes to wake up and hear.
“God, that’s awful. When did he get it?” says Silas.
“I don’t know. Cat-Sue told me. She said he shakes all the time,” she replies, thinking back to the Mass celebrating the deacon’s induction. Cat-Sue had insisted everyone be present for the ceremony. “We don’t have any nuns and priests in the family,” she’d carped, “but at least we’re getting a deacon. That’s gotta count for something, and we’re all gonna be there.”
During the Mass, the deacon stretched out, prostrate, on the altar with seven other men, their pale wives behind them at their feet. After the ceremony, everyone was invited back to the deacon’s A-frame chalet in Gatlinburg to hear stories of how long it took him to become a deacon, and of all the interviews his wife had to endure to see if she was worthy to be the wife of a deacon.
It was a huge Catholic snore of an afternoon of Dorritos and dull conversation, and Jean soon felt she would burst into tears if they didn’t escape. Great bowls of baked beans with bacon nudged up against platters of honey ham and potato salad loaded with mayonnaise and more bacon. The deacon’s wife kept serving dishes of deviled eggs. Jugs of sweet tea flowed, followed by coconut cake and banana pudding. Pregnant with Daisy, Jean hovered over Hannah, who was ripping through bowls of nuts and candies sitting on low tables. Jean kept waiting for her to start choking and turn blue. The deacon’s eight-year-old granddaughter, Mary, lay on the floor, coloring silently in an activity book called My Favorite Saints A-M.
It was after that claustrophobic afternoon that Jean bought her first text on Buddhism, a pocket-size book called “Teachings of Buddha.” Now, she even reads some of the prayers to her girls when they are in bed at night. Since she isn’t raising them Catholic, she feels that maybe they do need some spirituality in their lives, but what? Buddhism? Still, who is she kidding? She’s never even been to a Zen Meditation Center, and whenever she considers saying the words, “By the way, I’m an ex-Catholic turned Buddhist,” she shivers at its pathetic indulgence. She thinks of her parents’ reaction to such a revelation. Buddhist? What the hell? What happened to Jesus Christ? He doesn’t count anymore? Answer me that one, ya big turkey.
Jean remembers her now dead grandfather saying to her once, “The Catholics are on the expressway. Folks of other faiths will get to Heaven eventually, but the Catholics? Bingo! They’re on the expressway!”
And it isn’t like she was ever molested by a priest or more than mildly humiliated by a nun. Then she could have the excuse of outrage. She simply isn’t Catholic anymore. She doesn’t miss it. She doesn’t long for Sunday sermons or Holy Communion or Stations of the Cross. She wants to raise her children away from organized religion, so they can decide for themselves later. But Hannah doesn’t even know who Moses or Mary Magdalene are, and she thinks Jesus is the Sun God, not quite hearing “Son of God” once in church with her grandparents. Jean accepts full responsibility for her children’s fundamental lack of knowledge of Judeo-Christian highlights, and she wonders if she is ruining them for life by not giving them the sacraments.
Not Silas, Jean thinks. He never worries about church or religion or faith. He finds grace in living. His religion is his family and in the way he slices perfect pieces of watermelon, grows spices in the garden, makes gossamer wings. Silas never gets headaches or stomachaches over worries. Jean is often chugging Tylenol or Tums. Silas has had one cavity his entire life, unlike Jean whose molars are lined with fillings. He doesn’t need glasses, but she is hopelessly nearsighted. What Jean wants is for the girls to inherit his genes for teeth, eyes and peace of mind.
AS THEY CROSS the Georgia line, the image of the Big Chicken flashes in Jean’s mind. Her parents recently moved into a new condominium just north of the Big Chicken, a twenty-foot chicken sitting on top of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. It was how the folks in “May-retta” asked directions, “Is it north or south of the Big Chicken?”
“We’ll have to eat again when we get there,” Jean whispers, looking at Hannah sleeping in Lourdes’s arms, Lourdes still asleep, too. “I told them we’ll have already eaten, but they’ll have supper ready. I don’t know why Daddy doesn’t like to eat before 11 p.m. Mama doesn’t like to eat that late. I mean, it’s crazy to eat that late.”
“Then you do the dishes at midnight, and it’s 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. before you’re in bed. No wonder I leave so tired. I’m going to see if we can’t at least eat supper early tomorrow. I’m going to tell Daddy that. It’s not an unreasonable request, is it?”
“Nope,” Silas answers, reaching for Jean’s hand.
“Silas,” she whispers without meaning to say it. “It’s probably no big deal, but I have a lump in my breast.”
“What? Let me feel it,” he says quietly.
“No, not while you’re driving. And I don’t want my folks to know.”
“When did you find it?”
“Just a few days ago. In the shower. Look, I want to get through this weekend and have things be normal. Then, I’ll deal with telling them later. After we get it checked out.” They drive a few more miles in silence.
“Good Lord, what if it’s cancer? What if it’s spread to your bones? What if…?”
His hysteria always catches her off-guard, it so rarely flares up, but she only says, “Shut up, Silas, shut up! I need you not to get crazy.”
“I will be if you don’t help me get through this weekend.”
“I’ll do whatever you need, Jeannie. You just tell me.”
“I will,” Jean says. She knows he is afraid he won’t be able to fix this thing with his capable hands. Jean’s father does not have this talent of fixing things. Cat-Sue often jokes of the long hours she has spent keeping company with handymen of Marietta. Now that Silas is part of the family, Cat-Sue comes up with projects for Silas whenever they visit: fixing stove burners, hanging phone cords, drilling hooks for hanging plants. Silas never seems to mind Cat-Sue’s requests, unlike Jean’s father, whose philosophy is, “If it’s broke, go out and replace the sumbitch.”
She stares out the window at the dark interstate, unable to see the ropes of kudzu she knows are hanging in the woods.
THE KIDS AND Lourdes wake up the minute they pull up to the condo, where the dogs are already barking. The porch light snaps on, and Jean’s parents appear. Hugs, kisses, pats. “How was your trip?”; “Much traffic?”; “Good,”; “Hungry?”; “Who’s this?”
Jean says, “A surprise! This is one of my best students, Lourdes. She’s just moved to Asheville from Los Angeles. Before that she lived in Michuacan, Mexico. She’s never been to Georgia, and she’s led a very exciting life.”
“How do you do, Lourdes?” says Henry-Lee, shaking her hand. “Welcome.”
“Thank you,” says Lourdes.
“Come inside, dear. You must be starving,” Cat-Sue takes her by the arm.
“Thank you,” she repeats.
They get swept out of the night air into the well-lit house. Henry-Lee’s glass of Johnny Walker Black with a splash sits by his latest issue of Golf Digest near a plastic bowl of peanut-butter-cheese crackers. The furniture is covered in bright floral prints, a couple of large clay vases fill corners with dried flowers and wrought iron crucifixes hang in the doorways. Jean ignores her high school graduation picture in which she wears blue crepe draped across her chest, but Lourdes studies it and says, “Very nice, teacher.”
Cat-Sue whoops, “What do y’all think of the clay pots? We’ve been hitting the discount outlets up in Commerce! Talk about great prices!”
“Can we have Jello now, Cat-Sue?” asks Hannah.
“Yeah, Henry-Lee!” Daisy begs. “Wed Jello!”
Henry-Lee brings out phone books for them to sit on at the breakfast bar, while Cat-Sue serves them heaping bowls of red Jello, sprayed with whipped cream. Henry-Lee pours Crown Royals for Jean, Silas and Lourdes.
Jean says, “Thanks Daddy, but I’ll just have a water … I’m really thirsty.”
“Me, too, please,” says Lourdes, sitting down next to Jean on the floral couch.
“Sure, sure!” he reaches into the cupboard, getting glasses.
The TV blaring, Cat-Sue inquires, “Have you ever seen this show? I’m not even watching it,” but she doesn’t turn it off or down as she squirts herself a glass of wine from a box of Chablis.
Jean says, “Lourdes’s mother used to wake up every morning at four to make corn tortillas for the family.”
“How interesting!” Cat-Sue says.
“Lourdes is one of eleven children,” Jean adds, but nobody answers.
Hannah polishes off her Jello first, and dashes to the living room. The piping chords of the Wurlitzer pulse through the house. Daisy slides off her phone books, and rushes to the piano, next to the organ. They pound on each instrument, trying to drown each other out. Cat-Sue disappears and the organ is silenced, but the piano keeps going strong until the sound of a lid quells the banging notes.
“What’s wrong with the organ, Cat-Sue?” Hannah demands, trailing her grandmother.
“Yeah, and why did you cover up dat piano, Cat-Sue?” asks Daisy.
“They’ve gone nighty-night,” Cat-Sue croons, sprinkling the counters with Comet. More laughter springs from the TV, and the phone rings, causing the dogs to bark crazily. Cat-Sue dives for the ringing phone, and Henry-Lee trumpets, “We’ll be ready to eat in about an hour, folks. I bought some Irish music today! What do you think of Irish music, Lourdes?”
“Very nice,” Lourdes nods.
“Great, Henry-Lee!” Silas grins.
“Well, put it on, ya big turkey!” He tosses the cassette toward Silas. “Lourdes, you’re in for a party!”
“Silas puts it in the stereo. Cat-Sue follows, saying, “I may need you to look at the speaker connectors, Silas. They don’t seem to work all the time.”
“Sure,” says Silas, turning up the music. Fiddle music echoes throughout the house. Hannah and Daisy do a jig across the linoleum, the dogs lumbering after them, trying to lick the Jello off their fingers. Lourdes smiles at the children.
AROUND MIDNIGHT THEY begin eating. Cat-Sue says, “Would you like to say the blessing, Lourdes?”
“I only know it in Spanish.”
“That would be a treat!” Cat-Sue beams.
Everyone bows their heads, and Lourdes says the blessing softly, “Te damos gracias por todos tus beneficios, Dios todopoderoso que vives y reinas por los siglos de los siglos. Ven dinos Señor, y estos alimentos que vamos a recibir de tu generosidad, por Cristo, nuestro Señor. Amen.”
Jean is moved by the eloquence of the Spanish language, although she can only catch some of the words: generosidad, Señor, gracias. But when she looks at her father to see his reaction, she catches him staring accusingly at the long loaf of crusty Italian bread sitting on the table, uncut. “Some sumbitch didn’t slice the bread.”
Cat-Sue replies, “Henry-Lee! You know Jean likes to rip it apart like a bohemian, so let’s just do it her way.”
“Jesus H. Christ!”
“Oh, God! Just cut it, it doesn’t matter,” Jean cries.
Cat-Sue shakes her head, “No, no, I like your way!”
“Oh, hell,” fumes Henry-Lee, “Get the goddamn bread knife. Liberal bullshit.” Silas jumps up to retrieve the bread knife and begins cutting the bread.
“This shark is delicious, Daddy,” Jean tries.
“Very good,” echoes Lourdes.
“No, I cooked the bastard too long,” Henry-Lee chews critically. “And I’m not thrilled with the Soubise sauce, either.”
“Mine tastes A-okay,” Silas gives a thumbs-up.
“You’re easy!” Henry-Lee tells Silas. “You eat that tofu crap long enough anything is going to taste good to you, right Lourdes?”
Cat-Sue assures him, “It’s fine, Henry-Lee, really. So Lourdes, you’re a student?”
Before Lourdes can answer, the girls rush up to the table, toting wrought iron crucifixes, yelling, “We want ice cream, Cat-Sue!”
“Why do you have those crosses?” Jean asks.
“We’re hunting for Dracula,” Hannah cocks her eyebrows, raising her cross like a priest at the consecration. “Poor, poor Jesus. Why’d they stick those nails in your little poor toes?”
Jean gets up, taking them both by the hand. “It’s the middle of the night, y’all, no ice cream. And give me those crucifixes before you impale yourselves. They’re not toys.”
They squirm away from her, crosses clattering to the floor, as they fly back out of the room to finish watching “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Jean hangs the crucifixes back on their nails, as Henry-Lee points toward the living room, “Don’t those two ever go to sleep?”
Cat-Sue says, “They’re just excited to be here,” smiling and dumping an entire bottle of blue-cheese dressing all over a salad of iceberg lettuce and carrot shavings.
“Hey,” Henry-Lee says. “Gotta joke for you turkeys. What’s the definition of a bigot?”
“What?” Silas replies.
“When a conservative wins an argument with a liberal,” he roars, stuffing a bite of shark in his mouth.
“Did you hear that on ‘Rush’?,” Silas smiles.
At the word “Rush,” Jean sees red flags, but Henry-Lee waves his fork around, bellowing, “Now, hold up a minute, folks. Rush Limbaugh is a hellava guy. Do you know Rush, Lourdes?”
“Rush?” Lourdes asks, cutting a bite of shark.
“Not now, Henry-Lee,” Cat-Sue picks at her iceberg lettuce. “Lord, y’all can’t imagine the talk radio we have in this house night and day. Sometimes I think, ‘Would it be possible to make it through the day without one more person’s opinion?’”
“What the hell, Cat-Sue?” Henry-Lee looks annoyed. “The man has some things to say. We all have to be accountable. Screw your gun control. We cannot tolerate derisiveness.”
Cat-Sue adds, “One solution might be to line up all the gang members and shoot’em dead straight through the head. Whether they’re twelve or thirty. I’ve about had it reading of the drive-by shootings, and babies getting killed. Haven’t you, Lourdes? Enough is enough.”
“That’s right,” Henry-Lee squirts more wine into his glass. “If kid gang-bangers are going to commit adult crimes, then we ought to fry their ass as adult punishment. I speak the truth now! And if you ask me, the reason for all the school killings is because of abortion.”
“What are you talking about?” Jean asks, her stomach cramping. She watches Lourdes stare at her plate.
“I’m talking about kids shooting kids because they’re not taught the value of life. If a kid shows he could have been aborted, how can he respect life? All that dead talent. All those dead babies.”
“Abortion is a terrible thing,” whispers Lourdes. “I wish I could have the babies. Many babies. Abortion is too bad. I belong to Right-to-Life at my church to help the babies.”
Jean tries not to imagine Lourdes chained to an abortion clinic; maybe she doesn’t go that far. Maybe she just stands about saying “Hail Marys.” She feels sick to her stomach; most of the shark is still on her plate.
Cat-Sue sips her wine. “I know I don’t have all the answers. I wish I did, but I don’t. Does anybody here have all the answers?”
Jean begins to weep.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Henry-Lee folds his arms across his chest.
“I’m just tired,” she replies. “I think I need to go to sleep.”
“Okay, teacher,” Lourdes stands up.
“No, stay and finish, Lourdes,” Jean swallows and entire glass of water to keep the sobs down, mortified.
“I don’t see how you do it, darling,” Cat-Sue chatters. “Taking care of kids, teaching your community college classes…. How many students? A hundred or so? Lord knows, I sure didn’t have the pressures you have.”
“Are you reading that book I gave you?” Henry-Lee asks. He turns to Lourdes. “I gave her a book called Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.”
“Mrs. Jean is a great a teacher,” Lourdes says. “She is very kind to us. My English is still very poor, but she helped me learn a lot. Mr. Silas, too.”
“Lourdes is here to make a better life,” Silas adds, squeezing Jean’s hand under the table.
“Lourdes,” Jean urges, “tell them about your mother paying the Coyote to take you across the border in the engine because your family was starving, and the only way you could survive was to make a new life here in the states. Tell them about working in the button factory in downtown Los Angeles for ten hours a day! Tell….”
“It is not necessary,” Lourdes says, blushing. “Now I am legal. My husband is legal. We pay the taxes.”
“That’s because you want to be accountable for the mistakes you and your mother made,” Henry-Lee says. “I admire that!”
“Daddy!” Jean cries.
“It is true,” Lourdes says. “We want to be good residents, hopefully good citizens someday, too.” Lourdes turns to Cat-Sue. “May I go to church with you? Hannah says you like church. I do too. Is it possible?”
“You’re welcome to come with me, honey,” Cat-Sue says. “I’d love the company.”
AFTER JEAN BRUSHES her teeth, she climbs into bed. What kind of mistake did she make bringing Lourdes here? She hears Silas trying to settle the girls down in the other room, Lourdes kissing them good night. Cat-Sue knocks and walks in, exclaiming, “You can’t read in that light. You’ll ruin your eyes.”
“I’m just going to read a chapter.”
“No! Let me get you a decent light.” She drags in another lamp, plugging it in. The light is strong and bright. “There now! Much better! Is the light okay?”
“Yes, much better!” Jean smiles at her mother who hesitates at the door.
“Lourdes is very sweet. It was very sweet of you to bring her. Is anything wrong? You don’t seem yourself, honey.” Cat-Sue asks.
“No, I’m fine. I’m’ just tired.”
“Are you sure? Can I get you something?” she tries again.
Jean longs to crawl into her mother’s arms, but instead says, “I’m okay, Mother.”
“Honey, be extra sweet to Daddy this trip. His business lately… it’s not what he thought it would be. He’s thinking of going back to scouting. For money.”
“Maybe he should. Those putt-putt things seem kind of bullshit.”
“Well my goodness, don’t hold back on your opinions, my dear,” her mother’s voice grows tight. “You know, a man has to try things.”
“I know but five years of….”
“Make sure you put anything you drink on a coaster,” Cat-Sue interrupts. “You know how I hate water rings on furniture.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jean says.
“We love having you here, darling,” Cat-Sue closes the door.
Jean attempts to read Nellie Bly, but gives up after a few pages. A while later, Silas comes in the room. He puts his hand on her breast. “I feel it,” he whispers.
“It’s probably nothing.”
“You’re going to the doctor Monday.”
“All right, all right.”
“I love you, Jean,” he kisses her neck, setting a glass of ice water on a round coaster made out of shag carpet. “Lourdes says good night.”
THE NEXT MORNING, gray light shines through the window. Silas is already up and gone. The clock radio says “2:17,” as it has for the past five years. Jean gets up and washes her face, dabbing a touch of lipstick on her cheeks to give her some color. She makes up her mind to smile and be extra positive. Live in the moment. Embrace the moment. Lovingkindness. The Unreal Conditional. If I were full of lovingkindness, then everyone around me would feel my light.
Daisy appears at the bathroom door, “You not tired, Mama, no more?”
Jean picks her up, whispering, “No sweetie, I’m awake now.”
“Good. Then play babies with me,” she orders.
Carrying Daisy through the house, Jean finds Hannah building a giant sled in the living room like the Grinch. She has pillowcases stuffed with junk, furniture moved and all the couch pillows stacked high for the sleigh. “Fiddler on the Roof” is playing again on the television, but at least the crucifixes are still on their nails.
“Good morning. What are you doing?” Jean hugs Hannah, who is working too intently to answer.
Daisy explains, “Hannah’s making a ship for da Ginch. Cat-Sue’s still seeping. Henry-Lee’s dwinking cawfee with Lourdes.”
Jean walks out to the patio. “Morning, Daddy. Morning, Lourdes.”
“Hello, teacher,” Lourdes says, buttering a bagel. “It’s very nice here.”
Henry-Lee looks up, “Well, morning. Did you get some coffee? Your husband went for a jog at the track.” He stares at the business section. “We should leave in about an hour for the parade. I have to get there a little early.”
“Who does your stomach make-up?”
He says, “Oh hell, I’ll do it myself when I get there. You might want to clean up the living room. Hannah’s gotta a bunch of bullshit happening in there.”
“I’ll do it,” Jean replies, reaching for a slice of lowfat cheese Danish.
“I mean she’s got a great imagination, but it’s a goddamn eyesore!”
“I said I’d take care of it, Daddy,” Jean sips the coffee.
“I’ll help you, teacher,” says Lourdes.
“By the way,” Henry-Lee says, “me and Lourdes have got you and Silas all figured out. You’re actually conservatives disguised as liberals. Don’t you pay taxes? Have y’all ever collected unemployment? Applied for an N.E.A. grant? You’ve never taken a handout in your lives. Y’all are damn conservatives is what you are, right, Lourdes?”
Lourdes giggles, and says, “More coffee, teacher?”
Jean pretends not to hear and says, “Daddy, did you hear about that baseball player who wrote a book about playing in the minor leagues? He talked about the craziness of salaries and coaches, and how they laughed at him for reading Aristotle in the dugout. It looks good.”
“I read a review,” Henry-Lee snorts. “God gives that S.O.B. a ninety-mile-an-hour pitching arm, and he’s a victim. Everyone’s a victim!”
THE PEACHTREE SAINT Patrick’s Day parade is packed with Irish revelers. Silas, Lourdes and the girls find a place on the curb to wave to Henry-Lee when he marches by in the painted stomach-faces brigade. Jean and Cat-Sue follow behind with the cooler and dogs. Several leprechauns spring by. High school marching bands stomp past playing “Galway Bay.” Twenty Rottweilers in green sweatshirts walk with their owners. Someone from the crowd yells, “Tucker, you need to get a life.”
“Aw, bullshit,” Tucker whines back, “You can kiss my Irish ass, Venus!”
Jean hears two women talking. “Well, I hear Naomi Judd has opened a fancy restaurant in Nashville. My daughter’s friend got herself a job in it. My girl says Naomi’s a real B-I-T-C-H.”
Finally, the stomach brigade files past. Some of the men flex their bellies to make the faces grin or grimace. Henry-Lee’s stomach is of a face that looks remarkably like Rush’s. Upon seeing him, the girls start yelling, “Henry-Lee, Henry-Lee!” He salutes, marching onward with the Knights of Columbus.
They meet up in the park after the parade for a picnic. Henry-Lee is wiping off the stomach make-up with a towel. He puts on a fresh golf shirt. Jean rubs more sunblock on Daisy, who wrenches away, rushing up to one of the Rottweilers from the parade before Jean can stop her. The big dog licks her face and she giggles. Cat-Sue laughs, “I swear that child knows no fear.”
Silas strolls up with Hannah sitting on his shoulders. Lourdes follows in a jaunty Irish hat made of cellophane. “This is very fun, teacher,” Lourdes says, proudly showing her a “Kiss me! I’m Irish” button.
“Good,” Jean replies, wishing she could close her eyes and sleep.
As Silas sets Hannah down, Daisy asks, “Mama, can I be Jewish? The fiddler is Jewish. I want to be like him.”
“What the hell do you want to be Jewish for?” Henry-Lee hallooes. “You’re Irish Catholic and be proud of it!”
“Can’t I be both?” Hannah looks worried.
“You can pretend, sugarpig,” Cat-Sue assures her.
“How can she pretend to be Jewish? It makes no sense,” Henry-Lee argues. “She can pretend to be a princess.”
“She can also pretend to be Catholic,” Jean mutters under her breath.
Just then a cotton candy vender strolls by, and the girls hurl themselves at him. Daisy yelps, “Look, it’s gween. Can I have money?”
“Me, too!” cries Hannah.
Jean shudders, “Your teeth will rot. You’ve had so many sweets this trip.”
Henry-Lee snaps, “Oh hell, let them have some cotton candy!”
“It’s junk, Daddy!” Jean feels the blood rush to her face.
“Goddammit, give the poor kids a break. It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, right Lourdes?”
“Oh yes, teacher,” Lourdes says. “It’s a celebration. Just like Día de los Muertos in Mexico. We eat Calaveras de Dulce!”
“What the hell is that?” Henry-Lee asks.
“How to say? Skulls of dead? Made of sugar. Very delicious offerings.”
“See?” Henry-Lee retorts. “What’s a little green cotton candy?”
“I said no.” Jean’s heart shrinks, her brain throbs.
“And I said I’m treating my granddaughters to some green cotton candy.”
Something inside Jean snaps, and she lunges into the middle of all that blinding kelly green. “No! No green cotton candy, no fucking way! They’re my daughters. You’re not in charge anymore, you monster! You are not like this! You are not supposed to be like this, and I can’t bear it…. You have no idea who I am and you think you can say whatever you please, and I’m warning you, it has to stop! It has to stop!”
Henry-Lee recoils. Lourdes puts her arm around Cat-Sue who appears ashen. People in felt leprechaun caps stare. The girls knot their fingers, ducking in fear behind Silas’s legs. Silas moves towards Jean, but she pulls away, and finding the curb on Peachtree Boulevard, throws up hard. Saint Patrick’s Day revelers move away.
Hannah yells, “Ew, can I see the color?”
Cat-Sue queries in a tight voice, “Are you okay?”
Jean wipes the vomit off her mouth with the back of her hand. The nausea hits her again, and she is back at the curb, retching, crying. Hannah and Daisy pat her on the back over and over, cooing, “It’ll be okay, Mama.”
Down on her hands and knees, Jean whispers, “Forgive me.”
Silas kneels down beside Jean, cleaning her face with a babywipe. He helps her lean back against a tree. The girls crowd in on top of them. Jean sniffs their heads, kissing their damp curls. They sit there in a heap under a live oak tree without speaking. From about a block away, a band begins to play the Notre Dame fight song. “Cheer, cheer, cheer, for Old Notre Dame….”
Then Henry-Lee yells, “I’ve always hated you, Notre Dame, even if you are Irish! You goddamned son-of-a-bitching Notre-Damers are everywhere! You can’t go anywhere without seeing some limp from Notre Dame!”
“Shhh, Henry-Lee,” Cat-Sue says.
“Well, who needs’em? Who needs goddamned Notre Dame sons-of-bitches?”
“What are Notre Dame sons-of-bitches?” asks Hannah.
Looking up into her father’s eyes, Jean sees his face crimson with heat. She whispers, “I’m sorry, Daddy.” He doesn’t reply as he cracks open lite beers for everybody, putting an eyedropper of green food coloring in each bottle, the tips of his fingers staining green. Lourdes holds the bottle of food coloring for him.
As she leans back in Silas’s arms, cradling her daughters, she imagines she can smell the wind blowing down from Stone Mountain, where all those generals on horseback are carved into the side of the summit. She fingers the lump, imagining lying on a quilt in the grass under a summer night of shooting stars, near a roaring bonfire, chiggers biting her ankles. When she opens her eyes, she sees her father’s green fingers reaching for her hand.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I wrote “The Big Chicken” before I started writing books for children and was trying to write a short story, which I still find impossibly difficult to write. I was in a writers’ group at the time, and we met regularly, and it was very helpful to receive feedback on the stories that worked and those that didn’t. For whatever reason, I was able to make “The Big Chicken” come together. An agent once asked if I might consider making it the first chapter of a novel. Maybe.
I did teach ESL at Garfield Adult School in East LA many years ago, but otherwise this story is very much fiction, although we know better than to discuss politics in my family. I am very grateful to give this story a new life at Redux.
ABOUT KERRY MADDEN-LUNSFORD
is the author of the Maggie Valley Trilogy for children, which includes GENTLE’S HOLLER (2005), LOUISIANA’S SONG (2007) and JESSIE’S MOUNTAIN (2008), set in the heart of the Smokies and published by Viking Books for Young Readers. Her first novel, OFFSIDES, was a New York Public Library Pick for the Teen Age in 1997, and is now republished with Foreverland Press and available on Kindle. Her book WRITING SMARTS is full of story sparks for young writers. UP CLOSE HARPER LEE made Booklist’s Ten Top Biographies of 2009 for Youth. Kerry teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and at Antioch University in Los Angeles and has written essays for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Salon, and the Birmingham News among others. Her first picture book, NOTHING FANCY ABOUT KATHRYN AND CHARLIE, was illustrated by her daughter, Lucy Madden-Lunsford, and published by Mockingbird Publishers in the spring of 2013. The mother of three kids (two of whom are grown) Kerry divides her life between Alabama and Los Angeles and writes under both Kerry Madden and Kerry Madden-Lunsford. She is also the editor of the literary journal, PoemMemoirStory. She is currently at work on two novels, a memoir, and some picture books. For more information: