Thursday, June 16, 2011

Chapter 1 ~ Six Men

My sisters gave me Cathy at our mother's funeral, handed her over like a blouse they were returning because the material was scratchy and the sleeves didn't fit. Their suggestion that I take her out of Stockton, introduce her to the world, somehow soften her texture and lengthen her reach, was followed by the first moment in the day when I wasn't tasting ashes and rust.

There was a good turnout for the funeral party. The house was filled with relatives, neighbors, close and distant friends. Women crowded the narrow aisleway in the kitchen, putting yellow and white casserole trays to heat in the oven. The dining room table was littered with the dishes they had brought: a thin, golden tea cake glazed with slivered almonds; tamale pie with hamburger, canned corn and black olives; fat, gluey macaroni and cheese; thick slices of ham. People leaned over the food, spooned it onto mismatched plates, spilled out through the back door into the parched lawn, talking loudly. Laughing. Their laughter was abrasive after the stark ceremony, my mother's drawn face on the tiny, white satin pillow. I floated through the party as if protected by a transparent bubble, watching, but not participating in the proceedings. I poured myself a hot brandy in a styrofoam cup and stood beneath the giant, old oak tree, which looked beautiful despite the round, rotten oak balls clustered on its branches, signs of sickness it dropped occasionally onto the yard.

It was officially autumn, but the San Joaquin Valley air was hot and dense, pressing down on my shoulders like an unwanted shawl. My navy blue, polyester sailor dress clung uncomfortably to my pantyhose, outlining my flat belly, my slightly rounded thighs. My long, reddish brown hair hung in dark, damp handfuls. I stood uneasily beneath the big oak and sipped the calming liquid, concentrating on the heat it spread slowly down my throat and into my chest, trying not to notice my aunt scuttling toward me like a hermit crab, her drink held aloft in her pincers like a piece of rotting fish, her enormous hat a spotted nautica shell.

"Your mother was a wonderful woman," Aunt Vicki spat out when she finally reached me, only slightly slurring her words. Her big, wide-brimmed hat bobbed up and down in agreement. "You girls have no idea what she did for you. You'll never know what she went through." Vicki clutched my arm with sharp fingernails and pushed her face toward me with belligerence, as if encountering resistance, then peered pointedly over at my father. "She was a saint. A saint!"

I didn't look at my father. I knew what Vicki thought of him. She had divorced his alcoholic brother 10 years before and still resented the years she had spent with him, cleaning up his vomit, mothering his wounded children. I tried not to remember the muggy afternoon five years later when cousin Lila, together with my sister Candace, found him dead in his bachelor's apartment, awash in empty whiskey bottles, fruit flies, and the sick-sweet stench of rotting garbage⎯and flesh. I focused instead on the brown lines outlining Vicki's perfectly straight, yellow teeth; the red lipstick traveling up tiny rivulets towards her pert, sculpted nose; the small grains of face powder trapped beneath the fine, blonde facial hairs on her flaccid cheek. I nodded. Tightened my lips in an imitation smile. What does she want from me? Walked away.

In the living room Grandma Lillian was holding court. She was wedged into the blue print swivel chair, her big bulk in a blue print dress bleeding into the cushions, spilling haphazardly over the sides. I heard her introducing a guest to Uncle Bernie. "I believe you know my son Bernard? Branch Manager of Haywood Bank and Trust?" Her tiny eyes glittered with the glory of it. Grandma Lillian's shiny black purse sat sentinel on the floor beside her. Inside it was the telegram from Aunt Viv in New Orleans. It had arrived that morning, addressed to the whole family. But after reading it aloud brusquely, and snorting with disbelief over Viv’s expression of condolence, Grandma Lillian quickly shoved the letter deep into her handbag, waving off my request to read it, not wanting to waste a moment discussing her willful, wayward daughter. The only one of her six offspring that wasn't here. Except mom.

I passed through to the kitchen, re-filled my cup with water from the tap, put it in the microwave, and screwed off the cap of the cheap brandy bottle. At 20 years old, I wasn't legally allowed to drink in California. But the kitchen wall shielded me from Grandma Lillian's disapproving stare, and no one else at the party would try to stop me.

Through the back wall of windows I could see my boyfriend Johnny laughing, entertaining a group of slightly manic men. He was the center of attention: big, well-muscled, blonde, relaxed. His flat, wide face made him look simple, which he wasn't. He met my eye, raised his chin, broke away to walk toward me. I turned abruptly and headed toward the back bathroom. He caught up with me in the laundry room, outside the closed door to the toilet. His hand fell on my shoulder like a traffic cop's.

"Where are you going?"

"To the bathroom," I said dully, caught.

"I can't believe you did that to me."

"What?" I was annoyed. "I really have to pee."

Johnny rolled his eyes, impatient with my stupidity. "I can't believe you made me be a pall bearer."

I felt like I'd been slapped. "What are you talking about?" I sputtered. "We needed six men. Who was I supposed to ask?"

Johnny shook his head, angry. He wasn't falling for any crap. "I hated that," he said. "It was the worst thing I ever had to do."

His face was flushed, the skin over his round cheekbones tight, inflamed. His big body, usually comforting, seemed threatening. We squared off against each other like belligerent children on a playground, not sure whether to fight or run.

"Well, I'm really sorry for you, Johnny." I finally spat out. "I’m sorry you had to put my dead mother in the ground. But now, if you'll excuse me, I have to take a big, stinking shit."

I felt his eyes on my back as I swung around to twist the doorknob on the bathroom, began to panic when I realized it was locked. "Anybody in there?" I jiggled the doorknob, knocked.

"Go away." I recognized my little sister's voice.

"Cathy, please let me in." Two spots began to burn on my back, just beneath my shoulder blades. I imagined smoke rising from the yellow flesh.

"I'm busy." Her voice was slurred.

I leaned my forehead against the door and whispered. "Cathy please. I want to come in. I'm drowning out here."

My sister took half a minute to open the hollow, pressed-wood door, a few more seconds to resume her position kneeling before the toilet seat. "I'm not feeling so good," she explained. Vomited. I swept inside and locked the door quickly behind me, but not before glimpsing the empty hall. So Johnny had left, after all. I moved in front of the mirror to examine my make up, ignored the noise of Cathy's retching: thick liquid dropping heavily into thin water in the bowl.

The face that looked back belonged to a stranger. I saw the way the dark freckles stood out against her blanched skin, made note of the snail trail of tears down her cheek, examined the black smudge of smeared mascara under each eye. I felt myself growing calmer. The sound of retching was somehow soothing, appropriate. This is what everyone at the party should be doing, after all: moaning softly, clutching their heads, purging their stomachs. I looked at my sister's white-blond hair spilling over the porcelain, held back by long, delicate fingers, a tiny, birdlike wrist. The skinny white legs sticking out along the floor looked about eight years old. They were 16. I backed up to the wall, slid slowly to the floor. I imagined a bright streak of red blood smearing the tiles behind me.

"I don't feel so good either.”

Cathy's head nodded, once.

There were just two of us, then. Not a house full of strangers. Just the two of us making our muffled sounds of mourning, mingling them together in the back bathroom. My ugly little secret lodged hard in my throat.


Want to read the rest? You can order an ebook version here: Thirsty Work.

Thirsty Work is one of many novels, short stories, plays and columns you can find on my Amazon Author PageSee what I'm working on now at

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