DEATH IN THE FAMILY
Liz studied her family seated at the supper table, her emotions rising and falling in waves of fear followed by anger. She decided her grown children could get along without her but worried about Freddie. Thelma would take care of him, but she’d have her hands full feeding and caring for Svez and the boys. What would become of Iggy?
Her anger crested and she challenged God’s plan. Why did He decide to take her when there were so many others who weren’t needed? She’d been a good mother and a faithful Christian and didn’t deserve punishment. God ain’t fair. She remembered the shocked expression on Father Reinhardt’s face and his charge of blasphemy. She feared for her salvation.
She whispered, “Jesus, Mary, Joseph, save me.” She glanced around the table, but no one seemed to hear.
Mary, mother of God, would intercede. All the Novenas Liz had made should count for something. Her faith reassured, God certainly wouldn’t abandon her. The same determination needed to survive the rigors of farm life would get her through this crisis. She’d refuse to die. God would help her destroy the demon that attacked her body.
Her fear receded, but her face remained flush with anger. Her father had raised his fist and cursed God when things went wrong. Was she becoming like him? She remembered the razor-strap and the howls from her brothers when he punished them with it. She refused to cry when he hit her, but she shed tears when he died. May God have mercy on both their souls.
Relieved her husband, not her father, sat next to her, she whispered, “Svez,” but through the din of conversation he didn’t answer her call for help. At the altar where they exchanged vows, Liz felt she merely passed from one man to another, but soon realized Svez was different. He expected a lot but never demanded anything. He even listened to her advice when making major decisions.
Another wave of fear followed by guilt. She had made a very important decision without consulting him and wouldn’t be around to take responsibility. Why hadn’t she asked permission to take Freddie into their home? At least, tell Svez what she intended to do?
She imagined him laugh, “You want another baby? Why not? There’s always room for one more.”
She glanced at him hoping for some sign of approval, but he appeared distant and unapproachable. Yet, she found comfort in his presence knowing he was a good father to their children. He offered Arnie a home when their parents died and included him as a family member. He would do the same for Freddie.
She glanced at Arnie’s empty chair and then across to Iggy. Those two weren’t so different, always got what they wanted. She realized all the men in her family got whatever they wanted, then felt guilt for the uncharitable thought.
Svez was angry for her running to the priest, and she felt bad about lying to him. Important matters like bringing a child into the family and, she shuddered, dying should be first shared with ones husband. Maybe Svez already knew. He claimed a sixth sense for anticipating animals being sick even before he got to the barn. They sort of talked to him.
She glanced his way without lifting her head and whispered, “We’re your animals, too.”
“Huh?” His eyes seemed fixed on his untouched supper.
She felt another wave of emotion, went to the stove to replenish the meat and potatoes, and wiped her eyes with her apron. Back at the table, her family discussed an incident that deeply troubled her, but she hadn’t yet sorted through the details.
“I hear Iggy almost put Pa outta commission with a pitchfork. He shoulda had some of this sticky stuff on his hands.” George poured the last of the syrup onto his bread, grinned at Iggy and handed him the empty bottle.
Iggy held it over his plate and waited for the last drip to fall.
Herman poked Ralph. “The news got to Buddy’s bar if George heard about it.”
“George weren’t there today.” Ralph grinned at Thelma. “Besides, he only sleeps there.” His eyes roved from Herman to George. “We knowed you stayed one night, and Pa fetched you in the morning.”
“When you guys dry out behind the ears, I’ll let you join me.”
Thelma said, “At least you’ll have company.”
“What makes you think I slept alone? Mildred from the bank came to spend the night with me.” Herman and Ralph laughed, Iggy giggled, and Svez grimaced.
Liz recalled Buddy’s call waking them in the middle of the night. Svez told him George paid enough rent to sleep there ’til morning when he’d fetch him on his way to the Co-op. Then he yelled at the rubbernecks on their party line to go back to bed because the show was over. They laughed and made love before returning to sleep. Bed was their place to share each other and discuss problems from the previous day. She felt blessed to be included in her husband’s business; not many other wives were so lucky. Who will he talk to about important matters when she was gone? Another wave of denial. Please, dear Jesus.
Iggy held the syrup bottle to the light and peered into it. He touched the final drop, stuck his finger into his mouth and made a popping sound as he pulled it out. “It were an accident, what happened today.” He wiped his hand on his shirt. “Thelma fixed Pa’s leg, real good.” Thelma jumped up and went into the front room.
Svez’s face flushed and he redirected the conversation. “’Nough stuff ’bout Buddy. Talk nice for a change.”
Her husband’s annoyance with the boys’ teasing surprised Liz, and Iggy’s comment brought back the unsettling matter of the accident. Earlier when she asked to see the wound, Svez claimed it wasn’t serious.
Thelma returned to the kitchen holding Freddie. “Pa hurt his leg like I told you, Ma, and I helped him fix it. I did good and he went right back to work.”
“Was Freddie fussy?” Liz stooped to pick up the end of the blanket trailing to the floor.
“No, Ma. He never fusses.” Liz took the child and placed him in his playpen. Her intuition told her something happened while she was away, but she buried her fear in a secret compartment in her mind.
George said, “Thelma, them was peaches I saw you canning yesterday. Why don’t Iggy run down to the cellar to get some?”
“Ma, tell George they’re for next winter. There won’t be any left if we start breaking them open already.”
Liz remained at the playpen and stared.
“Iggy, get some of them peaches.” George spoke with the authority of an oldest son.
Iggy said, “Soon’s I finish supper.”
Thelma shrugged and said, “You gotta tap the lids. We need to open them first that didn’t seal proper.”
“Is Arnie eating in his room again?” Svez glanced up and asked.
The sound of his voice pulled Liz back from behind her walled-in hiding place. “I think having the baby in the house makes him edgy. He might feel there won’t be room for him if Freddie stays.”
She planned to share her concern with Svez in bed, but the engulfing cloud distracted her.
“I’ll talk to him tonight in the barn.”
All conversation stopped when Arnie entered the room, paused as if he were about to say something, then passed from the kitchen and out through the porch.
Thelma said, “He didn’t bring his cup and plate down.”
“He never does.” Liz returned to the table. “You gotta fetch them.”
“He gets mad at me when I mess with his stuff, and I know he’s got a lot of dirty dishes in his room, some with bits of his supper still on them. Always tells me he ain’t done yet. Likes to save something for late at night when he gets hungry.”
George said, “You better get them ’fore an army of mice clean them for you. Counted ’bout twenty of them little critters crawl out of Iggy’s bed this morning and head to Arnie’s room.”
“Talking ’bout mice in my bed don’t bother me none. I can just keep eating.”
Herman said, “Naw, them ain’t mice. Them’s the squirrels Iggy kicked out of the rafters above the porch.” His eyes fixed on Thelma. “Still goes up there every night to see they don’t come back.”
Iggy jumped up and sulked out to the porch. He came back and said, “I gotta get them peaches.”
“Them ain’t mice or squirrels. Them’s little piggies sticking their heads out from under Iggy’s covers.” Ralph lifted his foot and touched the tip of his shoe. “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home.” His eyes followed Iggy until he disappeared through the open trap door to the basement and then fixed on Thelma. “Remember when you pretended his toes were little piggies and you squeezed them ’til he got off giggling?”
Thelma jumped away from the table, walked to the stove with her plate, but immediately came back with it still empty.
“Now what’s the matter with you? Has everyone gone crazy?” Liz tossed her hands into the air.
“Pa hurt his leg today, and I helped him fix it real good, Ma.”
Liz said, “I know.” Svez pushed his chair back and stood. “Sit back down. We got some things to talk about, as a family.”
He mumbled, “Gotta get the chores . . .,” but plopped back onto his chair.
As Father Reinhardt turned his car into the driveway, he noticed a short, stocky man wearing a buckskin jacket stand rigidly near the gate between the house and the barnyard. Must be the brother because Stella claimed Svez was quite tall. The man faced Reinhardt until the car came to a full stop. When Shamus rolled down the window, cleared his throat and said, “Good afternoon,” the man turned his head, rubbed his palms on the sides of his jacket and hurried toward the barn.
“It must be this darn car,” he muttered to himself. “Times like this I wish I had my Ford back.” The rich aroma of leather and cigar smoke blended with the earthy smells of the farm and created an inharmonious blend much like his confusion and uncertainty. He checked for dogs and measured the distance to the open door of the white farmhouse. The bare ground where chickens and geese scratched and pecked at tiny insects contrasted with the grass and shrubs surrounding the house inside the fenced area. He scanned one more time, but other than the two dogs following the man into the barn, none were visible.
As he approached the house, he saw people sitting at a table and heard the murmur of conversation. This would be his opportunity to talk to both husband and wife, and attempt to repair the injury he may have inflicted on Mrs. Rastner earlier that day. Her disclosure and quick departure left him sitting at his desk, unable to offer words of comfort, unable to say anything to this distressed member of his flock. By the time he explained the situation to Stella and agreed to say a short prayer for Mrs. Rastner’s soul, she had escaped. He should have followed her to the parking lot instead of listening to his sister.
He failed her and now, away from his element at the rectory, he felt as out of place as his ostentatious car. Yet, he was determined to do the right thing for this family. They were his parishioners, and he’d been charged with the responsibility of taking Christ’s message of peace to them. He braced himself for the strong odors from the foods popular with country folks and the sparse interiors of their homes. He entered the porch and held his hat in front of him with both hands.
“Knock. Knock.” He announced his presence and leaned forward, peering into the kitchen awash in light from the setting sun. The room quieted and everyone gawked. His black cape startled them, he decided, and wished he had left it in the car.
He opened his mouth to start a conversation about families breaking bread together, an idea he rehearsed while walking to the house, when a creak from the back corner of their kitchen distracted him. From the floor, a door opened like the lid to a coffin, and through the hole a ghost-like figure arose carrying a golden tabernacle emanating rays of brilliant light. The apparition, probably blinded by the sunlight, reacted with a high-pitched scream. Shamus produced a note two octaves lower.
“A vampire,” a teenaged boy screamed as he held a jar of peaches protectively in front of him.
Liz said, “Hush, now,” and faced Shamus. “Are you all right, Father? Would you like some water?”
Shamus spied a pail with a dipper hooked on its rim and declined. Sylvester Rastner, Shamus assumed, hunched his shoulders as he stood, craned his neck and peered over his glasses at three sons who immediately got up and hurried out of the house. He pointed to the chair closest to him.
“Please, Father, take George’s seat.” He extended his hand. “We’ve never actually met. I’m Svez Rastner.”
Shamus accepted the extended hand. “I’m sorry if I interrupted your boys’ dinner.” Svez shrugged.
Liz said, “They’ve got their chores. Can I get you anything, Father?”
“No, thank you.” He sniffed quietly, trying to identify an odor, and then blurted, “Kraut?”
“Would you care for some sauerkraut, Father?” Liz gestured toward the stove. “It’s from an old family recipe.”
His impulse possibly created the opportunity he needed to open conversation on the delicate issue of her illness. “I haven’t had sauerkraut in years. Yes, I would like to try a little, please.”
“Fix Father a plate,” directed at the girl who was clearing dishes from the table.
From the corner of his eye, he watched her take a plate from the stack, give it a quick swipe with her apron and fill it with a glob of sauerkraut, strings dripping from the ladle. A burst of strong aroma filled the air.
“How about a potato?” Mrs. Rastner asked. “The kraut is pretty strong to eat by itself.”
“Yes, thank you. I’m sure one will be necessary.” He laced his fingers but resisted cracking his knuckles. “I am truly sorry for bothering you folks at dinner time.”
The boy stood behind his sister and whispered, “It’s supper, not dinner, and we won’t get to eat them peaches.”
Shamus faced the plate in front of him and decided to get to the point of his visit. “I feel duty bound to make myself available to families of St. Alphonse Parish who are experiencing troubles God has chosen to send their way.”
Shock appeared on the boy’s face and his breathing became audible. He retreated to the porch where he stood as if being punished.
“Trouble? We don’t got no trouble I know about.” Svez grimaced as he glanced at his daughter and then back at the priest. His voice cracked. “What kind of trouble do you mean?”
Almost child-like, the girl said, “Father, after you’ve eaten why don’t you come out to the barn to see my baby pigs?”
“I should like to see all the animals and,” as an after thought, “bless them while I’m here.”
Liz said, “Thelma, you haven’t raised pigs for some years now. What’s gotten into you?” She took a deep breath. “Iggy, get the boys. Better bring Arnie, too. I’ve got something to tell everyone.”