“Gerald, where did you put those groceries?” Clara Mae fanned her copies of Southern Living on the coffee table. It was her last step when she cleaned for company; she liked her home to have a “neat-but-lived-in” feel. Makes people feel more comfortable. Still, the floorboards were spotless, the shelves dusted, and the windows reflected the slight streaks of paper towel.
She always cleaned when she felt nervous. There was just something she liked about bringing her small piece of the world into order, even as everything else is in chaos.
The center had called. Mama was eating again.
“Stable, but not herself,” they’d said.
Clara was not herself, either. She couldn’t shake Gertrude’s words—
He done ate his mommy.
And what had happened to Mama.
Now he’s gonna eat you.
But she hadn’t gone back. She’d kept up by phone, she’d talked about going, but she hadn’t gone. Just couldn’t bring herself.
So she threw herself into cleaning.
“Gerald?” She walked toward her husband’s room. “I need that Febreze.”
Her husband had his headset over his bald pate, and he pretended he didn’t hear. He was clicking the mouse as a massive close-up of a gun on the computer screen fired rapidly. His room smelled strong of booze, and while she would feign deodorizing the couch she planned to get a few covert squirts in his direction.
Gerald held up his index finger and mouthed, “One minute.”
“No, Gerry. Kathy and the girls are gonna be here any minute.”
The screen flashed “GAME OVER” in all caps, and Gerald threw his headset against his keyboard. “See what you did?”
“I didn’t do that, Gerald. Anyway, where are the groceries?”
“The ones you went to the store after this morning?”
“I didn’t go after any groceries.”
“Gerald. I gave you a twenty and asked you to pick up some Febreze and some honey. Then we had that conversation about how much Jennie likes honey butter with her yeast rolls… Tell me you went to the store. For God’s sake.”
But Gerald just looked down at the floor.
Clara didn’t have to ask, but she did anyway, knowing what it would bring. “You bought beer instead, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I did. And so what. I’m sick of having to ask you for money like a kid asking for his allowance.” He slurred a bit at the end, and spit splattered the computer, magnifying pixels in a shimmering rainbow-wart on the monitor. He wasn’t looking her in the eye; instead his focus hovered just above her hairline, and the flush of anger was in his cheeks. Clara Mae knew to back down.
“Okay, fine. Look, just stay in here and play your game. It’s no problem. Jennie can have her honey butter next time.”
“Are you trying to say that I can’t see my own grandkids in my own home?”
“Gerald, you’ve been drinking. Maybe it’s not the best time for you to be playing with the kids is all.”
“I am just fine. Jesus, all I had was a couple of beers. Why are you always on my ass?”
“Come on, just calm down, okay? The kids will be here any minute. I don’t want them to see—”
“You don’t want them to see their drunk of a granddad, eh? Don’t want them to see where they came from? Fine.” Gerald stood up and put a jogging jacket over his sweatshirt. “Then I won’t be here.” Her grabbed his mason jar with the last swig of beer in the bottom and stormed out the back door.
Clara watched the door slam shut and wondered if she should follow him. Would he do something that he would regret? She started toward the back door but hesitated. She only amplified his anger when he was drunk like this. Cooling off a bit in the woods is not a bad idea. He’s a big boy. He’ll be fine.
A moment later she heard Kathy’s minivan pulling up to the house. “Grandmom!” the two girls chorused as they burst through the side door. They rushed her with their embrace, a blur of swinging blonde pigtails, throwing her a little off balance.
“You girls want a Coke?”
“Yeah!” They both said in unison. Clara Mae had a second fridge, an old one tucked in the storage closet next to the den. It was only stocked with drinks: rows and rows of sodas—loaded with sugar, caffeine, aspartame, whatever your pleasure—and the girls thought this was the best thing ever. Jennie picked a Yoo-Hoo, Sarah wanted a Hawaiian Punch “FRUIT JUICY RED.” Clara Mae grabbed a Diet Coke and offered it to Kathy—who was now shoes-off reclined in Clara’s favorite chair. She knows that is my seat.
“Make yourself at home, Kathy.” Clara didn’t mean it as sarcastic as it sounded.
“Thank you for having us over, Clara.” If Kathy noticed Clara’s annoyance she didn’t let on. “Just being here reminds me so much of Dan. I feel like he’s still with us.”
Clara felt the flush of embarrassment rise in her cheeks, hoping her son’s spirit had not been watching over that very moment. “You’re always welcome here, Kathy. Dan loved you and the girls so much. He’s still with all of us, right now.”
Kathy started to cry a bit, and Clara put a hand on her shoulder. “I know it’s hard,” Clara comforted.
“Hard,” Kathy said softly.
Clara Mae saw the girls’ faces turning to frowns, the remembrance of their loss passing over their faces again. She quickly changed the subject. “I got you girls a ‘happy,’” Clara Mae lifted a giant purse from beside her recliner and removed two small packages. For Sarah, some Super Sour candy spray and a Glitter Babies plastic makeup set that didn’t apply any color; for Jennie a rubber ball on a paddle, a bag of Jelly Bellies, and a DE-LUXE set of stickers from a cable cartoon station.
After a round of thank-yous Clara Mae was covered in glitter and assorted big-eyed animals saying things like “Great Job!” and “Nice work!” Once Sarah and Jennie got started laughing—they’d just made her look so silly—they couldn’t stop. Their giggle box got turned over, their dad Dan would have said. Clara could see the girls needed to let it free, laughter so much that a few tears rolled, knowing it wasn’t that funny, but seeing how much it was necessity. Those two had been through too much to be so young.
“Girls, that’s enough,” Kathy said, putting an end to the laughter, her voice edged with irritation.
“Okay.” Clara Mae felt a little reprimand herself. She stood up, composing herself. “Who wants dinner?”
“I would love some. Just bring me a plate of whatever.” She touched Clara Mae’s arm lightly. “Extra potato salad.”
The girls ran to the kitchen, piling their paper plates so high with macaroni and cheese that the plates started to bend a bit.
“Now, get some green beans, too. They’re good.” Clara Mae said.
“You ain’t getting desert if you don’t eat your vegetables.” They could hear Kathy holler from downstairs. The girls spooned only the smallest servings of roast on their plates, tiny islands of pork slices in pools of brown gravy, and gratuitously garnished the plates with a handful of Cheetos. This time Clara kept her mouth shut.
The yeast rolls were hidden behind the door of a cooled oven. Clara didn’t mention that, either.
Downstairs Kathy was wielding the remote, flipping between an R-rated comedy with “sexual situations” and a Lifetime movie with a murderous wife. A woman bent over an ottoman blurted “FUCK,” and Clara shot a dirty look at Kathy as she handed her plate. I would’ve got whipped for just hearing that word when I was a girl. But Kathy looked nonplused as the girls came down the stairs, and Clara didn’t feel right saying anything.
Kathy inspected the plate in front of her. “Oh, but this is… Never mind, it’s fine.”
“Oh, is something the matter? What can I get you?”
“Well, it’s just that—no really, it’s nothing.”
“Kathy, it’s no trouble, really.”
“Well, it’s just that I don’t ever eat my gravy on my meat. You know. I put it on the side so I can dip it. That way I can watch my figure.” Kathy patted the bit of her stomach spilling over her elastic waistband.
“No problem, Kathy. I’ll eat that one. I’ll just grab another plate for you real quick.”
As she came back down the stairs, new plate (gravy-on-the-side) in hand, she could hear that the girls had begun squabbling.
“Stop pinching me!”
“No, you stop pinching me!”
“Thanks,” Kathy said, taking her plate. “Would you two shut the hell up? Don’t you see we are trying to eat here, for Christsakes?”
They were quiet for a moment until Sarah whispered, “Oooh. You got your shirt dirty!” The girls had big orange streaks of Cheeto-neon on their white sweater sleeves.
“Oh, Jesus, my shirt is dirty! You got my shirt dirty!”
Kathy stopped, put her plate on her knee, and muted the TV as silent breasts danced on screen. “Did I just hear you take the Lord’s name in vain?”
The girls looked at her, but didn’t respond.
“And WHAT did I tell you two before we came here?”
The girls were silent, staring at the floor.
“You said don’t get our shirts dirty,” Jennie said. “But she got mine dirty—“
“Shut up, Goddammit! Neither one of you can ever behave! I am so tired of it! And Jennie, you’re older; you’re supposed to be setting a good example! I’m so done with you kids. Go cut a switch.”
“But… we’re sorry…” Sarah started.
“We’re sorry,” Kathy mocked.
Jennie looked up at her grandmother, pleading. Would she say something? Her backside was still sore from her humiliation that morning in Sunday School.
But Kathy caught her looking for a way out. “GO CUT YOUR SWITCH,” Kathy said once more, and the girls, resigned, filed out the back door, fading into the dusk illuminated by the glow of bug zapper and flickering porch light.
Clara Mae waited until the kids were outside. “Kathy, you don’t have to do this.”
Kathy dipped a piece of pork into the gravy and leaned forward. “Oh yes, I do.”
“Haven’t the girls been through enough? Ease up on them a little,” Clara Mae said.
“I most certainly will not. Do you think Dan would want me to ease up on them? No way in hell. I’m left to be both mother and father to these girls, and I’m going to do right by them,” Kathy said.
“Dan wouldn’t want this, Kathy,” Clara said.
“You don’t know a thing about what Dan wanted.” Kathy jabbed the air in Clara’s direction with her fork, sprinkling a bit of dark brown gravy on the floor. “I’m going to tell you this once and only once. I don’t ever want to hear you question my parenting again. Or you won’t be seeing these kids again. And I mean that.”
Clara felt the heat rise up in her blood, her neck hot, her ears hot.
“You don’t have Dan to protect you anymore, God-rest-his-soul, and I don’t have to take it from you. So I won’t,” Kathy finished. She unmuted the TV and cackled loudly at the screen, turning her gaze away from Clara.
Her head was swimming. Clara walked out to the back porch to see the two girls mulling over bushes by the back fence. A thin branch was a rookie mistake—the light weight making it easy for quicker licks, leaving a burning swatch of fine lines to blister. A branch that was too big was an obvious mistake, especially when underestimating the weight. Too much bend at the tip would blister outer thigh. The best was light weight, solid thickness, but straight, straight, straight. That made Kathy feel she was getting her money’s worth, but left the girls with more bruised ego than behind.
I was whupped as a girl and turned out fine. That’s just how it was. But Clara looked at the little girls who had just lost their daddy, and felt sick.
She knew Kathy was right; she didn’t have rights in the eyes of the law to those babies. She was just the grandmother, and her visits could be taken away at any time by Kathy’s whim. She wanted more than anything to run to them, grab them, hold them and hug them and never let go.
But instead she just watched from a distance.
Kathy called them inside, and the girls walked up the porch steps with their chosen switches, lambs to the slaughter.
“Please don’t let her!” Jennie whispered to her Grandmom. Sarah nudged her forward, knowing the price of delay.
Clara Mae just shook her head and said, hushed, “I can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t.” The girls filed through the door to the den. Clara Mae watched them until they were out of her sight, then she plugged her ears to stop from hearing the cries.
She blinked several times, slid her fingertip against under-eyes to remove the smudges of mascara, and tried to look like she hadn’t been crying.
Please don’t let Kathy know.
She was blinking and blinking, her eyes focused and unfocused on the horizon. In the distance she saw her goat eating something. The goat was always eating something. It had been Mama’s goat—a neighbor had given it to her in exchange for something, but Clara couldn’t remember what. Mama had never liked it. She never milked it as she’d probably intended, or cleaned it, or even let it roam beyond its short fence-tether. But she refused to get rid of it, either. So when Mama went to The Home, the goat and its tether made their home in Clara’s backyard. The goat did not seem to know the difference.
The goat was eating something when a male silhouette emerged through the blur. He came out of the thicket between the shriveled, brown remains of vines hanging on bean poles; a thick man wielding a small object over his head—maybe a brick? She rushed into the house, only too happy for a reason to interrupt.
“Kathy, there’s a man back here!” she called out from the open screen door, but as soon as the words left her lips she felt like a fool.
It was her husband.
But, he looked different.
Kathy and the girls had gathered on the porch. “Did Granddad grow hair?” Sarah said.
“Don’t be stupid,” Kathy said, but even she had to admit that was what it looked like. “And what’s he carrying?”
As he got closer, the porch light illuminated a golden amber substance in the Mason jar. “I got your honey, Honey!” Gerald was all teeth, grinning widely. And as he got closer she realized that the new “hair” was bee stingers, hundreds of them, a thicket of stingers rising from his raw, swollen scalp. And yet, he seemed overjoyed.
“I found a hive back yonder in a tree. Those bees didn’t know what was coming! I did it. I got you your honey. Didn’t even need to go to the grocery store.” He held the jar out to his wife like a prize.
“Gerald, I never!” Clara took the jar from his blistered hand, fished a dead bee from the top and flicked it to the ground. “Get yourself inside.” But a smile had broken through beneath her red-rimmed eyes.
That night they sat watching Kathy’s raunchy TV selections without complaint. Gerald sat at Clara Mae’s feet as she tweezed stinger after stinger, Clara laying each that she removed on a paper towel and swabbing the bump with an iodine-soaked Q-tip.
“Grandpa, what is that?” Jennie asked.
“Monkey’s Blood,” he called the iodine.
“Gross!” they giggled.
Clara watched the girls—they looked hungry—stuffing themselves with the entire pan of yeast rolls, smearing each with generous spoons of honey butter, relieved for some brief moments of peace. But she could feel Kathy’s eyes watching her watch the girls, mouth turning quietly up in a sly smile between sideways glances and smacking mouthfuls of potato salad.