LIZ AND MARTHA
Christmas morning, Liz sat on the couch with Freddie on her lap and forced a smile while Thelma opened her present. “It’s a store-bought dress. I hope you like it.”
“Thanks, Ma.” She stood and held it to her shoulders. “I’m gonna save it for church on Sundays.”
Iggy clutched his present and squirmed but waited until Thelma sat back on the floor next to him. He usually complained about Thelma opening hers first because she was the youngest. Liz was proud of him.
“Go ahead, Iggy. You’re next.”
He tore away the bright outer wrapper and then rounds of newspaper. “A shotgun! I knew it.” He aimed it at the ceiling and yelled, “Pow! I got me a goose. Thelma can cook it for dinner.”
“We already got one roasting in the oven.” Thelma reached under the tree and selected another present. “Some chickens, too.” She passed it to Ralph who, along with George and Herman, sat on the kitchen chairs she had lined up facing the tree.
“It weren’t a goose you shot.” George reached for Iggy’s gun. “You killed our poor little Christmas-tree angel.”
Iggy glanced toward the top of the tree. “Hey, Ma. Where’s the angel?”
“You shot him, Iggy.” Ralph tore away colorful wrappings. “But, don’t worry. He don’t wanna be stuck on a dumb tree anyhow. How’d you like pine needles stuck up your ass every Christmas?”
Herman said, “Shut up, Ralph, and open it so I can be next.”
Iggy continued to face the bare treetop. “I didn’t . . ..”
Liz wanted to protect him from his brothers’ teasing, but soon she’d be unavailable to save him from anything. Pity momentarily overcame her fear. “You didn’t hurt the angel. He’s not up there because he’s on an errand.”
“Hope he ain’t out buying more presents.” Svez slid the largest package toward his captain’s chair with his foot. He wedged his reading glasses onto his nose, studied the nametag and shoved it back under the tree. “From the looks of this pile, you can’t tell we had a bad harvest.” He shook his head and glanced over his glasses toward Liz. “Might be buying hay ’fore winter’s over.”
“I used egg money I’d been saving for a rainy day. I want this Christmas to be special. Besides, these are things you’ll be needing.”
“Needing?” Svez’s eyes met hers. “For what?”
She ignored him. “Go ahead, Ralph. Open the box.”
“Yeah, Ralph, get the lead out.” George faked another shot at the tree and handed back Iggy’s gun. “I gotta get to Buddy’s soon as we’re done here.”
Svez said, “The Café is closed, including Buddy’s back room. Folks would sic the Revenuers on him if he sold liquor on Christmas.”
“George gets in.” Herman grabbed his present from under the tree and leered at Thelma. “Buddy lets all his good customers in through a back door when the café is closed.”
Ralph pulled a jackknife from his pocket, opened it and cut the string from around the box. “Buddy let me in one time. My moustache makes me look as old as George.” Ralph tugged the few scraggly hairs sprouting under his nose.
“You keep talking smart and I’ll pull them out with a tweezers when you’re sleeping.” Herman began opening his present.
“You guys better stop talking dumb.” Thelma squinted toward the tree. “Where’d you put the angel, Mama? I took him out of the box with all the other ornaments.”
Thelma called her Mama, not Ma as usual, and the boys didn’t tease. Liz put the bottle’s nipple into Freddie’s mouth and wished her breasts magically filled with milk. She said, “The angel took Martha to heaven and hasn’t come back yet.”
Her family didn’t believe it, but the angel would never again grace their Christmas tree. It would lay beside Martha forever. She imagined an angel, pine needles and all, following Martha up to heaven.
“Your Ma don’t need no angel.” Svez stood and walked over to her and tickled the baby’s chin. “She gotta new one. A live one.”
After all the presents were opened and her family fussed with a collection of shirts, pants, tools, sling shots, one shotgun, books and a couple of baby rattles, Liz said, “Thank you for the nice shawl. I’m sure all of you pitched in to help Thelma knit it.”
“I wound the yarn from the skein,” Iggy said as he carried chairs back to the kitchen.
Liz said, “You boys take Arnie’s gift out to him in the barn while Thelma prepares dinner.” She handed Freddie to her daughter. “Take him into the kitchen where it’s nice and warm.” She pressed against the arm of the couch and struggled to her feet. “You don’t mind getting everything ready, do you?”
“Not at all.” Thelma placed the baby in his crib near the kitchen stove. “Dinner won’t be ready for a couple of hours, and I don’t want you guys pestering the cook.” She put her hands on her hips and glared into the front room. “That’s me in case you don’t know.”
Herman grabbed Arnie’s present and ran out the door, Ralph chasing after him. George followed as far as the kitchen, paused and turned back.
Liz paused alongside Svez’s chair and touched his hand. He peered over the rims of his glasses and smiled. She stepped into their bedroom and shut the door.
Lying on her bed, emotions drained, only a nagging sadness remained. She expected a lot from Thelma, but some girls her age were already married with families to care for.
Liz talked to Martha whose presence she felt. “You were Thelma’s age when Ma died, and I wasn’t free to help you. All those years, you stayed with Pa even after the boys left. And then him taking a new wife. She’s the reason you agreed to marry Henry. In your thirties, what other prospects did you have? Poor thing, attached to an old man with horrible sons.” She felt a surge of anger. “It killed you.”
Someplace between dozing and dreaming, she heard Martha’s weak voice from the hospital bed. “There are certain things I want to do before I rest in the arms of Jesus.”
Henry cowered in the corner of the room and muttered, “She ain’t dying. Don’t need to do nuthin’ in nobody’s arms.”
“I don’t want to die in the hospital.” She faced her husband. “Take me home, Henry.”
He glanced down at her as she struggled to sit up and then said to Liz, “Find her clothes. I’ll get the car.”
“You’ll have to check her out in the business office.” Liz peered into the small closet across from Martha’s bed.
“I ’spose they want money.” He stormed out of the room.
“He gets mad because I can’t make him and the boys meals anymore. I don’t think he likes our baby either. When they brought Freddie for me to nurse, he said he had more important things to do than watch me try to feed my kid.”
Liz set her clothes on the foot of the bed and brushed strands of hair from her sister’s face. “Getting sick isn’t your fault. And, you were carrying a baby, your first. Henry’s got to understand.”
“He ain’t a bad man. He works hard and wants what’s best for his two boys. He took me in when I had no place to go. I couldn’t stay with Pa and his new wife. It wouldn’t have been right.”
Henry stomped into the room and said, “Get her ready. We’re gettin’ out of here.” He jammed some papers into his coat pocket and put on his hat. “Guess a fella can’t pay for doctorin’ with a few chickens and a smoked ham like Pa did when Ma went to the hospital. They charged me more’n the rent on the north forty.”
While a nurse helped Martha dress, Liz and Henry stood in the hallway with the doctor who explained her condition. “The pregnancy probably slowed her cancer, nature’s way of favoring the unborn child inside. Her baby is doing fine, but don’t be surprised if her condition gets worse quite rapidly.” He crossed his arms around the clipboard held against his chest. “I’m sorry, but we can’t do anything for her here that can’t be done at home. Make her as comfortable as possible. Is there anyone who can help take care of the infant?”
“I’m her sister,” Liz said as Henry pushed the toe of his work shoe back and forth on the floor, his eyes glued to the track it made. “I can take Freddie for a while.” She stared at the name printed on the white coat behind the clipboard. “Martha’s only thirty-five. Isn’t she kind of young to get cancer?”
“Sometimes it runs in certain families. As her sister, you might want to visit a doctor for a checkup.”
Not sure if she had been dreaming or if she was still at the hospital, Liz asked, “What good did doctors do for poor Martha? I’m afraid they can’t help me either.”
She got out of bed, dipped a washrag into the basin on her dressing table and dabbed her face. Maybe her loss of energy was a false alarm and she didn’t have Martha’s illness. Dying didn’t frighten her as much as leaving her family to fend for themselves. Would Svez remarry and force Thelma out, or would he keep his only daughter at home never to have her own family? She told herself she wouldn’t die, ran a brush through her hair and opened her bedroom door.
From the archway to the kitchen she asked, “Why is everybody squeezed to one end of the table?”
“We all moved down to make room for Freddie. I gave him my place since I’m not the baby in the family anymore.” Thelma brought platters of meat and potatoes from the stove. “I tried to put him in my old high chair, but he’s too little. We just pulled his crib to the table instead. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course, I don’t. I see George is back from Buddy’s.” She sat at her usual place next to her husband and glanced at the new family member on her other side.
“Freddie didn’t want me to leave.” George touched the baby’s nose and then sat down.
“I don’t think you cooked a big enough goose, Thelma. Not if Freddie’s going to eat with us.” Herman grabbed the gizzard from the end of Iggy’s fork.
“You’re dumb.” Iggy glared at Herman and stabbed his fork into slices of white meat on the platter. “He ain’t got no teeth.”
“His Pa ain’t got teeth either, but he eats okay.” Ralph grabbed a drumstick, laid it on his plate and held his fork protectively above it.
“Yeah, but he keeps special-made ones in his pocket until he needs them.” Thelma glanced into the crib and sat beside it.
Ralph held the drumstick in his fist. “He’s ’bout the same size as a goose.” He ripped off a strip of meat with his teeth. “Maybe we should pass him around the table.”
“Ralph!” Liz scolded.
“Sorry, Ma. I meant just to look at, not eat.”
“Maybe he is a goose.” Herman sucked fat off his fingers. “Did you ever see the stuff he keeps in his diaper?”
“I’d sooner clean his underwear than yours, Herman.” Thelma touched the mashed potatoes, reached into the crib and let Freddie suck on her little finger.
“Herman’s underwear weren’t bad ’til I started him chewing tobacco.” George grabbed the gravy bowl, covered his meat and potatoes to the edge of his plate and handed it across the table to Thelma. “Here. Give Freddie something to go with them spuds?”
Svez said, “Enough dumb talk. Your Ma ain’t liking it.”
“I liked what George said about Freddie keeping him from Buddy’s.” Liz reached into the crib and wiped the trace of potatoes from the side of the baby’s mouth. She glanced up and noticed Arnie standing at the end of the table. “Sit with us, Arnie. It’s Christmas. I don’t want you to eat in your room today.” She pointed toward the crib. “We have a dinner guest.”
Arnie glanced toward the crib and cleared his throat. Everyone faced him as he held his plate and waited for the food to be passed. With his free hand he spooned a large helping of potatoes and smothered it with gravy. He steadied his plate with both hands and said to Thelma as she returned from the stove with a platter of meat, “Gimme a couple of them legs.” But instead of turning to leave, he set his plate on the table and sat down.
Surrounded by her entire family, Liz whispered, “Thank you, Arnie.”
Thelma realized Iggy needed to talk when he wandered over to the kitchen sink, grabbed the towel and wiped the plate she had washed and rinsed. She teased him. “I thought you’d be out shooting rabbits with your new shotgun. You aren’t sick are you? Helping me with the dishes?” She brushed a soapy hand across his forehead. “Here, let me check for a fever.”
“Hey, you’re gettin’ soap in my eyes.” He wiped his face with the towel, walked around the kitchen table twice and returned to the sink. “Was it bad to look at her?” When Thelma didn’t answer, he went on. “I don’t think I’d wanna see the body. Did you have to touch it?”
Thelma closed her eyes and returned to the day her aunt died. Henry’s oldest son, Herbert, had driven into their yard with his father’s Ford. Ma cried, “Oh, dear Jesus! It’s happened,” and she ran out to him. Thelma waited until the car drove off and then joined Liz, who stood and stared toward the barn. She said, “Aunt Martha passed away this morning. Run and tell Pa. We have to leave right away. Iggy can watch Freddie.”
“Do I have to go? I hate Uncle Henry’s dark and smelly house.” She rushed to the barn without waiting for an answer.
On the way to Henry’s farm, her mother explained what to expect. “Aunt Martha’s gone, certainly to heaven after her hard life here. But, there are things needing to be done with the body she left behind. The priest will perform what’s important, and we have to get her ready before he can touch her.”
Thelma imagined Aunt Martha’s body lying on the bed, or worse, on the floor. Surely, Henry would have at least put her on the couch. The rest of her mother’s instructions were a blur.
They found Henry sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, and he spoke to them in short bursts. “Good, you’re here. She died in bed, early this morning. I sent Herbert to get you. My phone don’t work no more. The boys are doin’ the chores. I stayed in the house. She’s in the front room. Couldn’t make it upstairs to the bedroom no more.”
Thelma wished he’d stop talking. She wanted to follow her mother into the front room but was afraid. Henry suddenly became quiet, pressed his lips together and made grotesque movements with his mouth. He resembled Iggy when he made faces to tease her.
“Damn false teeth.” Henry pressed his thumb against the roof of his mouth, and a trickle of dark liquid ran down his chin.
She heard her mother call from the front room, “I need help in here.”
“I gotta git to the barn. Go help yer Ma.” Henry leaned over the sink, released a string of tobacco juice and left the kitchen.
The memory of it made Thelma gag as she stared into the soapy dishwater. Why did Aunt Martha let the men chew tobacco in the house? Ma never allowed it. Her mind refused to go back into the room where her mother had stood over Martha’s naked body.
“Thelma?” Iggy twisted the towel and sounded frightened.
She didn’t answer but continued to wash the plates and rinse them in the basin. She placed them on the drain board for him to dry, but he stared and held the towel with both hands. He wadded it into a ball, set it on the washstand and walked toward the door.
“Yeah, it was hard to look at Aunt Martha lying cold and all blue in the face. I did touch her, but Ma did most of the work.”
“Work? What work needed doing?” He stopped and gaped at Thelma. “Was she dressed?”
“She died in her night gown, but Ma took it off, so we could wash her and put on her burial dress.” Even dead animals bothered Iggy. When Pa and Arnie butchered a cow or a pig, he hid in the barn until the meat was cut up into small pieces and ready for the smokehouse. When her mother chopped heads off chickens or geese, he covered his face until they stopped flopping and bleeding.
“Did you help dress her?” He returned to the sink, picked up the towel and wiped his forehead.
“I lifted Aunt Martha’s head while Ma combed her hair.” She hoped he’d stop asking questions. The experience still frightened her, and she didn’t want him to dwell on their Aunt’s nakedness.
He knotted the towel and laid it aside. “I don’t think I could’ve done it.” He walked into the front room and returned with his shotgun. He dug through the desk against the back wall of the kitchen and grabbed some twelve-gauge shotgun shells. “I gotta go shoot me some rabbits.”
“Thought you wouldn’t touch dead things.”
“Rabbits is okay, if I get to shoot them.” He left the kitchen and slammed the storm door behind him.
Thelma picked up the towel and continued to dry the dishes. “I didn’t think I could do it either, but I did.”
LIZ AND MARTHA