Where were you when I called last night? Where were you when I had to go out in the chilly darkness cause the wood box was empty again. Right now I’d like to flick your red pick-up truck off the landscape like some miserable bloodsucking insect. Fat and shiny, it winds its way over the bumps and dips of our Tuscaloosa farm land, its old motor ripping up the morning like sheet lightning in August.
“Y’all sit down and be still now.” Four pairs of eyes look up, questioning. “Go on now. Jemima, put Pudding in her high chair. Cecilia, Rose, get to your places. You’re Daddy on the drive.” I stoke the fire with fresh logs still cold from the wood shed; iced sap sizzles to steam as the fire licks the wood alight.
The stove is warming up quick but not quick enough to warm the room or fill it with the soothing scent of oven hot bread and fresh coffee.
“Y’all be quiet when Daddy comes in. Be respectful.” Cecilia and Rose nod but Jemima looks away. Only Pudding makes a sound, a high sweet baby sound all happy innocence.
Feet walk on porch boards; old wood creaks under a heavy weight. The screen door squeaks to life, calling on the front door hinges to answer it in low grinding tones.
“What y’all doing up so early?” My husband casts long shadows. His shoulders fill the doorway.
“We’re up on time. It’s not us that’s early, it’s others that be running late.”
“No Ma’am! Not late but right on time, on time for breakfast anyhow. Isn’t that right Pudding?”
My baby smiles real big. Her sweet brown eyes flash all kind of sunshine into the shadowy kitchen. I smell the bread begin to warm in the oven, see the butter melt in the fry pan. A touch of a finger to hot tin tells me the coffee pot is part way to percolating.
“The truck running smooth?”
“Smooth as ever,” my husband smiles.
Jemima flashes me a worried look from where she sits at the table. Ignoring her, I crack six eggs into the hot butter, scrambling the yokes into the whites. Better some kind of man than no man at all, my grandma whispers in memory, bidding me to tread careful. Yah…but if it weren’t for me our little ones would’ve been as cold as corpses in a snow drift last night.
“Any trouble on the road?”
“Not one bit.”
“Well that’s fine!”
I bite my lip, scrap the eggs onto six different plates, tear chunks of bread off the loaf and listen for the coffee pot to sing. The room smells all full of breakfast, the scent hangs heavy over the stink of cigar smoke, bourbon and cheap Woolworths’ perfume. Jemima takes two plates to the table, the first for her Daddy the second for Cecilia. My girl knows her manners but watching her wait on him makes me sad. When she comes back to the stove we take the last four plates to the table together.
“You see any of them Carlson boys last night?” I place a bit of cooled egg on Puddings tongue and watch her chew.
“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. What’s it to you Lizbeth?”
“Only that they’re mama was poorly. I was only asking on account of her. Seems a shame a fine woman like that working so hard all her life only to raise up six of the worst men that ever walked God’s earth.” I shake my head. “And that Meme Carlson…they say she’s turned out worse than the lot of them! Mrs. Haylee says she’s nothing but a two penny wh…”
“And how would you know how she’s turned out?” My man interrupts. “Not like you look her way at church or any other place. All you do is listen to gossip and slander and that just ain’t Christian. If you want to know how she does you should go on over and see for yourself.”
“Now why would I do that when I’ve got others to do it for me?” I take another piece of egg off Pudding’s plate and place it on her tongue. Looking around the table I see she’s the only one eating. Behind me the coffee percolates, its slow whine building into a scream. Rising, I take a mug out of the cupboard, fill it with coffee and walk to my husband. His shadow falls at my feet, cast by the sunlight pouring in from the living room window. It’s a big shadow that grows bigger when he rises to his feet.
“I’m tired.” Looking me up and down he turns to go.
“No sir, I’m tired.” I set my foot onto his shadow, pinning him to where he stands. “I’m tired of chopping and hauling my own firewood. I’m tired of milking cows you don’t make time to feed. I’m tired of tending and mending and cleaning for a man who can’t be bothered to come home when he’s needed. Jesus knows I’ve done my chores.”
Out of instinct my body tenses, my muscles contract, hardening in preparation for a strike. Looking hard into my husband’s eyes I see a mean light shine but Pudding giggles and the meanness goes out of him. With a defeated sigh he slumps back down into his chair. Jemima hushes my baby, pushing clumpy eggs into her open mouth.
“No Jemima, you let that baby girl laugh.” My husband looks down the table at his littlest girl. “You let her feel happy for as long as she can. It’s a sad damn dirty thing to stop a body from feeling glad.” Picking up his coffee he looks at me like I’m the last nail in his coffin, “and by the by Lizbeth…Meme Carlson had the good manners to ask after you. She says she hopes you’re doing fine.”