by J.A. Strawn
Marcy wiped the sweat beading on her face before she resumed her self-appointed job of cleaning up the porch. She regretted using the rounded straw broom. It kept losing bristles while she pushed around the gunked-up leaves and twigs which covered half of the floor. She suspected the broom was purchased for its aesthetic rather than utility, since it looked too clean before she started. It also had an old price-tag affixed to the handle, no doubt an oversight by her otherwise fastidious mother. Well, that was before the illness. No going back now.
A large beetle scuddled out from the corner, giving her a fright. It escaped through a hole in the screened in porch.
“Dangit!” Marcy shouted as she tucked against the wall. She shook her wet hand and wiped it on her jean-clad leg. She regretted not wearing lighter clothes. Everything was hot and sticky. While the afternoon storm and threat of tornados passed, the water droplets hung in the air like a used towel. This might be a two-shower day. Maybe three.
She didn’t have time for looking after the men and keeping the house in order. They expected it. Took it for granted that she'd keep coming around to pick up after them. She had to put her foot down but she was putting off the conversation. It was all so new; her mom’s death and the way her father fell to pieces. She couldn’t abandon them.
So why was she staying outside as long as possible? Or running into other rooms to finish up a chore? They probably didn't notice. Probably. Going inside felt like the worst idea. Her blue eyes darted from object to object. She laughed to herself, at the ridiculous nervous feeling in her gut. Then she spotted several more creepy-crawlies and found her next task.
“Sorry critters. You have got to go,” she said in a light southern drawl.
She gently flicked insects off the screen door. One stick-bug was especially stubborn so she let it be. No use hurting something that did no harm. Sweet Jesus, she didn’t want to go back inside. Daddy was sleeping off the late afternoon's drinking while Harrison, her younger-by-ten-years brother, insisted on pestering her non-stop in the kitchen. Hence, the “break” she was taking outside. She forgot the joint she had rolled up in preparation for the evening and cursed herself again. Now she’d have nothing safe to calm her nerves. This place used to be a haven. She missed the old Sundays.
Ever since Mama died, Marcy felt wrong when she stepped into their house. Broken and glued back together wrong. Like the time she dropped the antique porcelain doll from Aunt Beatrice and attempted to fix it herself. For months she still found tiny shards under the furniture and the permanent crack over its eyebrow gave the doll an accusing stare. The cracks weren't going to heal for Marcy either. She didn’t want to think about what it meant. They were all shook by the sudden hole in their lives. Maybe everyone was feeling the same. It did no good to think on it too much. She just handled it with carefully spaced time-outs from everyone. She repeated to herself that this was normal.
Marcy took in the calming sounds cascading tunes of bird-song. A rush of wind blew through the oak and hickory trees. Dr. Johnstone's family home was situated in one of the newer neighborhood, suburban sprawl cut a gash across an ancient forest. Sometimes they spotted a family of deer or a lone bear in the backyard. She used a rag to wipe the leaves and yellow pollen from the faux-Chippendale rocking chairs. Mama insisted they should sit on them at least once a month but nobody joined her outside, not when they had air-conditioning and ESPN inside the house. Maybe she had rose-colored fantasies of the south and wanted to recreate it like living art. The house was all antebellum flourish—a recently built Greek-revival to resemble the good ole days. The house color was a testament to her mother’s stubbornness since she had to fight the local homeowners association to paint it yellow instead of white. They were pleased when she installed white Doric columns that reached to the third floor balcony. The town didn’t have any plantation homes but they did have the Johnstone house.
Nobody in her right-mind would spend more than five minutes outside in the summer-autumn-spring ‘hotlanta’ weather even after a thunderstorm. Marcy was still in her right and left mind, if that was a thing, so she headed inside to check on dinner.
“You were gone a while,” Harrison said when she entered the kitchen. He glanced up from his phone. His face was still slightly flushed from the buzz of day-drinking with Daddy. Nothing new there since he reached the legal age to drink in front of her. The kid was sneaking beers since he was fifteen.
“Oh. Uh-huh. The porch needed cleaning up."
"I thought you were getting something."
"Got distracted. Anyhow, I think I left the tomatoes at my place. They weren’t in the car,” Marcy explained with a clenched jaw. That was her original excuse for getting out of the house. She tied on her mother’s apron, a tattered old thing with an awful chicken pattern on it. She used to tease Mama about it. Now she loved the it.
“Already losing your memory at the age of thirty?” Marcy gasped and Harrison caught himself making the tasteless joke a bit too late, the last words petered out. He winced and looked at his sister with wide apologetic eyes.
“Uh-huh. I think you know it’s too soon,” she said dryly.
Marcy went back to take her place over the hot stove where her stew simmered. Marcy stood over the stove and working up a sweat, her hair bundled up into a ponytail on the top of her head. The cubes of meat, onions, and spices bubbled away, stewing in thick gravy. The aromatic steam filled the room with more memories of a hundred Sunday suppers. The counter was lined up with the ingredients that were to go in one at a time.
It was assumed that she had plenty of time to devote to her brother and father because she didn’t have children yet, although plans were in the works. Marcy’s husband, Bill, liked to remind everyone that they were working hard at it and often gave her brother a little wink. Harrison once told her that the guy was a creep but she usually brushed it off.
“Check it out. Daddy still has his low-calorie beers in the back of the fridge,” he said waving the bottle in the air. “He’s gotta drink, what? Eight at least to get his usual buzz.”
“Look who’s talking,” she responded with a chuckle.
“Yeah, well, I’m doing him a favor. And,” he hesitated for a minute, prompting an ‘uh-huh’ from Marcy. “It’s been a strange fucking day.”
“Christ, Har! You shouldn’t talk like that. It’s disrespectful,” Marcy pointed the wooden spoon at him. Dear Lord she was taking after their Mama. Speaking of which, she bent down and opened the cabinet with her mother’s cooking wine. When she popped up with a bottle, her brother giggled and waved his hand.
Marcy shrugged. “A family tradition, sneaking off with a bottle of somethin'. It’s how I honor her memory.”
She watched him adjust a cushion on the breakfast bench and nestle into the corner of the room. He used to spend hours playing there when he was little. She recalled helping him with LEGO creations or homework assignments when she visited at the weekends or when she babysat him when their parents disappeared for their social events at the country club.
Marcy poured herself a generous helping of wine in a mug and raised it in his direction.
“In memoriam,” she toasted.
“In memoriam,” he copied her.
This place, this warm kitchen was once entirely his mother’s domain. She had sewn the gingham coverings for the cushions, pillows, and even the curtains. It was where she used to bake the kids’ favorite extra fudgy brownies or sneak him an extra buttermilk biscuit. Daddy was too busy for cooking and never helped out around the house. That was the woman’s domain, she remembered his pig-headed words echoing in her head more than once.
"I gotta say I’m curious about the strange fucking day you had with Daddy.” Harrison comically snorted his beer but she didn’t miss a beat. “Not trying to be hypocritical but day-drinking? Dr. Johnstone the upstanding pillar of the community just doesn’t do that sort of thing.” Marcy took another sip from her mug and stirred faster as she spoke.
"Sure he's got stress. He's feeling agitated, Marse," Harrison answered.
"Dangit! It’s a Sunday. You know what Mama would say? And what does that even mean? Agitated? How bout try the word mourning? Oh, because he isn’t doing it. I don’t know why I thought he’d grieve like a normal person. Hardly shed a tear.”
By this time Harrison was already walking over, putting out a placating hand like she might explode or bite him. Whatever he thought he was doing just pissed her off more.
“He was being stoic. . .for us,” Harrison said.
Marcy held her tongue. The men in her family wouldn’t know stoicism if it bit them on the ass. They complained and blew up at each other on the regular. The only way she endured it was by blanking out with the help of large doses of weed. She shook her head and chuckled.
“Mmm-hmm. Well, whatever is going on, Daddy can’t fall apart now. He can’t be day-drinking. He still has a job to get back to."
“No arguments from me,” Harrison said. His dropped his hand and relaxed his shoulders.
“Stoic,” she repeated under her breath and shook her head.
Harrison watched his sister at the stove, still calming down from her outburst. Marcy looked so much like their mother, a small blonde who could be knocked over by a strong breeze. But that was where their similarities ended. Where Mama was all kinds of soft and nurturing, Marcy was always up for a fight, even if she didn’t know it. He wasn’t even surprised when he found old high school photos of her with dyed black hair and a complete Goth phase.
“What? Huh? What’s so funny?” she asked him with a smirk.
“It’s just you remind me of a witch brewing something in your pot.”
“Thanks a bunch,” she replied, brushing him off.
She worked as a chemist the rest of the week. Mixing and concocting and well, it was all a bit witch-like when he thought about it. Then he remembered the pills he discovered in his father’s coat pocket at the bar. The ones specifically for Parkinson’s.
“Mom didn’t have any other disease we should know about?”
She sighed and eventually answered with a question, “Like what?”
“I don’t know. Parkinson’s?”
“No. A stroke. She had a stroke. Or a few of them. I don’t know exactly—didn’t Daddy explain what was going on?” she interrupted herself as she spoke.
Harrison stared ahead and sipped his beer. Marcy glanced back at him and sighed.
“I reckon he didn’t want to worry you, still being the baby and all,” she grumbled dismissively.
"Oh, I’m not sure he sees me like that anymore. Not anymore,” he repeated quietly. He put down the empty beer and rubbed his face.
“We’re lucky to have you. Women keep the family together. Not men. We're natural leaders, an altogether different thing," he continued.
Marcy glared at Harrison for a moment before resuming her work. He gave her a knowing little smirk and grabbed another beer from the fridge.
"So, as a natural leader. . .who drinks sophisticated low-cal beer. . .did you find an internship yet? For after graduation?"
"Nothing yet but the first job fair isn't until next month. The school has programs with a lot of ‘evil’ corporations."
"Well, just remember that none of them will be named 'Golden Goose.' I know how lazy you are." She laughed at her own joke as she added wine to the stew. She looked at the food and gasped.
Marcy quickly grabbed her knife and a cutting board to chop up a zucchini. She dropped the pieces in with a plop and wandered into the dining room for a moment, returning with a recipe she had printed out earlier.
Harrison smiled. She was always forgetting an ingredient and adding it in at the last minute. He couldn’t remember what she was making for tonight. Last week was chicken and dumplings but she complained that it wasn’t heart-healthy. Now she was probably working on some kind of Creole recipe that she’d doctored to be healthier, he supposed.
His mind drifted to the conversation with their father earlier in the day. So there was an accident with some bag-lady and he still felt guilty. That was the gist of it. He couldn't judge the man or offer absolution. Sons weren't supposed to be in that position with their fathers, were they? Anyhow, the accident happened years ago. Let bygones be bygones. The law decided he wasn’t at fault, not really. The crazy supernatural part, that's what was bothering him. They weren't holy roller types and now Daddy is talking about judgement and vengeance and whatnot. Mama with her gentle ways and sweet-tooth—and apparently a secret stash of wine. . .He left Marcy hanging in the conversation and needed to pay some attention.
"I should see if someone already took that name," Harrison said, after a time.
"What? Can you get me more salt?"
Harrison slowly got up from the bench and poked around the cabinets until he found a new container of salt. The little girl with the umbrella. It reminded him of baking cookies with his mom, back in the day.
He wandered around the kitchen and peeked out the windows to get a feel for the time. He liked to guess and then check the wall clock to see if he was right. For a moment he thought he saw a man in the garden standing just beside the wrought iron table and chairs. That couldn't be right. He looked a lot like that strange dark man with the book from the bar. No way did some weird follow them home and sneak into the garden. He'd have to make it through neighborhood security and their big fence.
He blinked and the figure disappeared. It had to be the sun’s rays playing tricks while the sun set.
Harrison ruminated on his father’s tale again. Grief has a way of tilting reality. He sighed and decided that he would do the adult thing and push those strange questions and feelings out of the way for another time.
"Thanks, Hare. What name? You said you would check out a name?" Marcy brought him back to the here and now.
"Oh. The Golden Goose. Maybe I’ll start a hedge fund one day and call it the Golden Goose. Unless it sounds like a Chinese restaurant."
"It does! Oh that's too funny. Wait, are hedge funds back? I mean, everyone was ready with pitch forks for a while. Although you probably don't remember." she added the salt and pulled up a stool. She sat down with a sigh to signal the hard work was done.
"My roommate's dad still has one. Maybe that's where I'll intern!"
"Your roommate who you catfished for a prank? Better stop teasing the boy or he may guess you don't like him."
"I don't. He gets riled up too easy and he's got a stick up his rear," Harrison shrugged. "Anyways, his parents like me. I'm the son they never had."
The stew simmered and bubbled filling the room with a spicy aroma. One of their mother's worn out pot-holders lay on the counter in front of him. A faded image of a rooster with a musical note somehow survived years and years of stews, soups, and roasts of all kinds in that kitchen. He remembered her delicate white hand picking it up and suddenly dropping it onto the lit burner. It was brown-black and frayed where it had caught fire. That was the first time he thought something was wrong.
"When did you notice changes? In Mama, I mean?" Harrison asked suddenly.
Marcy stilled for a moment, thinking about her answer and shook her head.
"Not till too late. And I wanted to ask you the same thing. I haven't seen a stroke up close but I thought there were maybe signs or some such. We were all here for the Father's Day cookout, do you remember? And we were together for days."
"Yeah, I remember," Harrison lifted the pot-holder in his hand and touched the scorch marks.
"She was okay one minute and then the next? Seeing things, hearing voices, talking like you'd think she was a Pentecostal!" Marcy laughed to herself. "It didn’t look like any stroke to me. I mean all of the connections were just shooting past each other in her brain. I wondered if someone put drugs in her food or something. What do I know? Poor Mama."
With a shaky hand, Marcy took a long gulp from her wine-filled mug. In all of their grief, Harrison often forgot how she would feel. Marcy and Mama were inseparable.
Harrison remembered the medicines that fell out of his father's jacket earlier that day. Could someone sneak that into a person? No, it must have been genuine medication. Just because nobody understood what happened to their mother didn't mean he should blame his father.