Droplets of dew dry in the slanting sun. She lay there in the cool meadow; spongy moss
beneath her; the smells of earth—life and death, decay and growth—circling. She feels the arms of the earth, steady and strong,
supporting her. She stares at the
cloudless sky; the red rose sun beaming down hot and bitter and powerful like
that first cup of coffee after a restless night spent wandering the house
waiting for sleep, checking windows and doors and the gas on the stove and the
coffee pot, mentally rehearsing a habit in a role she’s played far too
long. She opens her eyes. “I have been here before,” she announces to
the air, thin and stale. Her chilly
words are carried away on a cloud of mist.
Why the sun warms her body but not her words is still a mystery to her. She fells the pull of something, a niggling
against her brain, like a word she cannot fasten to her tongue. She feels the memory of a memory. She frowns.
“I have been here before,” she repeats.
Joe looks up from the card game, startled.
“Never mind her, Joe.
Miss June say that every day at nine.”
The bigger one tosses down a jack.
The cards are glossy and slick in Joe’s hands and he hopes
his eyes don’t reveal the truth: He is terrified of the disease Miss June
carries within her head.
He remembers his momma making cornmeal mush every Friday
night; cutting the cornmeal into thick pieces and frying it up with
onions. She’d take the piece of liver
the butcher had given her for half price—nobody wanted liver those days—and slice
it thin, coating it in a mixture of flower and salt before laying it in the pan
upon a bed of oil. And as Joe and his
little brother watched, the liver would dance and curl upon the stage of the
twelve inch cast iron pan, blackened with time and use.
“Don’t put that pan in water,” Momma would always say, after
the dinner had been dealt onto the nine chipped plates she’d bought from the
Salvation Army. “Jest wipe it out with a
towel and set it back on the stove.” She
would smile then to soften her words, revealing her chipped and yellowed teeth. Just before dinner, Momma would clip one rose
from the bush outside the back door and set it in the vase in the center of the
table. “There,” she would clap her hands
and admire the bloom, red as anger, “don’t that look fine?”
And they would sit and eat.
“How come you favor them flowers so much?” Joe’s eldest brother would always ask. “You fuss over them things like they was your own children.”
“My roses is good company,” she would reply. “I can love ‘em as much as I want and they
won’t push me away. They don’t give me
no lip, neither.”
The boys would laugh, then.
Joe supposed that, in a houseful of boys, his mother needed a spot of
beauty to bloom within her sad and bitter life.
One day, Joe came in from hunting to find a man he did not
know sitting at the kitchen table.
“Say hello to your granddaddy, Joe.”
Joe frowned. This wasn’t
his momma’s momma.
His mother forced a note of cheer into her voice. “This here’s your daddy’s daddy.”
Joe wondered why the man was here when his daddy was long
gone to God knew where. He approached
the table. “Hello.”
The man—his grandfather—looked at Joe without appearing to
“Don’t mind him, son.
His mind’s gone to mush.”
“Don’t say that, Momma,” the eldest son, who figured himself
an intellectual, said. “The connections
have gone bad, that’s all. Can’t you see
you’re scaring them boys?”
Within two years, his mother’s rose bush withered and died
while she cared for her ex-husband’s father.
“Your turn, Joe.”
The bigger man laughs.
“You look like you seen a ghost.”
“Do you mind if I take my lunch early today?”
The bigger man shakes his head. “It’s alright by me. Long as you get your work done.” He picks up a pencil stub and tallies the scores. Joe gathers the cards and tucks them into the
box. He grabs the handles of Miss June’s
wheelchair and pushes her back into her room.
He stands before her, leaning forward, his hands pressed against his
knees. “I’m gonna’ get my momma a rose
bush, Miss June. Now what do you think of that?”
She lays a palm—cool and moist—against his cheek. “I think she’d like that mighty fine, Joe.” She pats the bed. “Now crawl back into bed here and let me get
you tucked in.”
Joe slides into the bed; allows the covers to be tucked up
all around him, the way his momma did when he was but a boy. He falls asleep, dreaming of roses.
Miss June tiptoes from the room on thick-soled shoes and
returns to the common area.
“How’s our patient?” The bigger one asks.
“Talking about roses again.”
The bigger one nods.
“He does that every day.” He
tosses down a jack. “Your turn, June.”