Authors: Lora Roberts
“On what grounds? Your case is so flimsy you couldn’t even hold me.” I had learned a few things from listening to Drake talk, and one was that arrests were expensive, prisoners were expensive, and the DA didn’t like having to let people go again because there was no evidence. “And if you think you can railroad me, or use me to obscure any funny business that’s going on among your fellow cops, think again. I’m a writer, you know. In my experience, local papers always like to run exposés of police misbehavior.
“Are you threatening me?” His face turned dull purple, all traces of amusement gone. I had gone too far; it was a bad habit of mine.
“No more than you were threatening me yesterday, when you pointed out how well I’d come out of a trial. I’m keeping a journal, O’Malley. I’ll have lots of material for a series of articles—'Justice in Denver’ sounds like a good title.” I tried to sound calm. “Up to you whether it has a period or a question mark behind it.”
O’Malley stared at me for a moment longer and then turned on his heel. I watched through the windshield as he slammed his car door and drove away. Now he was my enemy, and I had only my own big mouth to blame for it.
Andy opened the front door, staring after the departing O’Malley, then at me. “Come in for breakfast.” It was not a question.
I was still fired up to slash and burn, but Barker had no ambiguities. He jumped down and pranced up the sidewalk, ready to see his idol, Amy.
I followed, trying to conceal my surliness beneath a thin veneer of decent civility. It was hard.
In the kitchen, Renee was dishing up plates of ham and eggs, with hot biscuits and red-eye gravy. It was an instant flashback to my growing up. Every morning my dad would sit with arms guarding his heaped-up plate, waiting for us to get to the table—absence wasn’t tolerated. The theory was that he burned it all off, and certainly my mother filled his lunch box to the brim as well. He never seemed to get fat, but I noticed that Andy was no longer very trim around the waist. My brothers had joined my dad in the laborer’s breakfast when they started working construction, but Andy was a foreman now, though he still ate like a laborer.
I accepted my plate and sat down beside Amy, who managed to smile at me, chew an enormous bite, and highlight something in a big textbook at the same time. The food was good, although I noticed the spiral cardboard of a refrigerator-biscuit carton in the trash and immediately felt less inadequate. Renee served me with a parody of hospitality, which seemed to be saying, “Remember how badly you fed me when I was your guest?” Fine, I’d never fixed her ham and eggs—or anyone, for that matter. The rich food tasted good going down, but sat in my stomach like a lump. I should have eaten granola in my bus.
“Fooling around with that computer instead of getting your homework done,” Andy growled between bites. Renee refilled his coffee cup and her own, and silently offered me a cup with a tea bag string sticking out of it. Lipton. And lukewarm water, too. It was thoughtful of her not to offer coffee, though. I thanked her and wondered how soon I could escape.
“I’m getting it done, okay? Get off my back,” Amy said in that prefight tone of voice that I recognized from my own adolescence. “What are you doing today, Aunt Liz?”
I cleared my throat and took a sip of the lukewarm tea. “Well, I’m going to see if I can do laundry or marketing or cleaning for your gramma.”
“Don’t upset the old man,” Renee said sharply. “You’ve done enough, I’d say.”
I shook my head. “I came to help, and I’m stuck for now, so I’ll help. What especially needs doing? Clean the bathroom?”
She said grudgingly, “Well, if you want something to do, that would save me from the job. And you can clean the kitchen cabinets if you like.”
Andy started to protest, and Renee rounded on him. “Well, why shouldn’t she?” Her voice was shrill with passion. “God knows I slave over there on top of my own work to keep that place going, now that your mom is laid up and your dad just sits there, expecting to be waited on like always. Let Liz get her hands dirty with it. She’s never helped before!”
Andy turned to me, a little shamefaced. “I’ve been thinking. About what you said last night.” He glanced around, as if dissatisfied with his audience, but went on resolutely. “You have a point. We could of at least beat the shit out of Tony when we knew he was hitting you, but we kind of thought it was between the two of you.” He stared at Renee. “God knows women can drive you crazy.”
“Marriage is hazardous.” I stood up. “I’d better get going. I have some errands to do. Can I pick anything up for you, Renee? Groceries or such?”
She shook her head. “Thanks.” It was reluctantly said, but at least it happened.
“Don’t you want a shower, Aunt Liz?” Amy pushed her wet hair out of her eyes.
“If it wouldn’t be a bother.”
“Go ahead.” Renee shrugged, picking up plates.
“Can I help with the dishes?”
“I just load the dishwasher,” she said, flouncing off.
Amy slapped her book shut and came out to the bus with me while I collected my washing stuff. “You can give me a ride again if you’re fast enough,” she suggested.
I agreed to this. It doesn’t take me long to clean up, and I wanted desperately to get out of my brother’s house. Despite his (for him) handsome apology, I felt smothered there.
Amy and I were climbing into the bus when a white pickup roared up and dived for the curb right in front of Babe. Biff leaped out of the driver’s seat and came striding over to us. This time he didn’t have his chorus of muscle-bound friends along. The scowling eyebrows gave his face a Neanderthal air.
“Look,” he said without preamble. “I don’t like cop-loving snitches.” He came to a halt in front of me, his big fists clenching and unclenching.
“Get out of here, Byron.” Amy jumped between us, and he pushed her out of the way.
“You get out, freak.” He didn’t take his angry gaze from me. “Stay out of my space, Auntie.” He gave the word a mean emphasis. “We don’t want nosy bitches like you around. The sooner you get out of here, the safer you’ll be.”
I felt paralyzed by the raw anger that poured from him. He got back in his truck and roared away just as Andy came out.
“What did Biff want?” He looked from Amy to me.
“The usual,” Amy answered, sounding a little dazed. “Total world domination.”
Andy laughed indulgently. “That Biff.”
Neither of us joined in.
My mom was leaning against the kitchen counter while she filled the glass pot of the coffeemaker with water. The only sign of my dad was the faint sound of water running from the bathroom.
“Should you be out of bed?” I took the carafe from her trembling hands and poured the water into the coffeemaker.
“Lizzie.” She sank into a chair and rested her arms on the table. "Thought you weren’t coming back. Your father isn’t going to like you being here.”
“Tough.” I studied the coffeemaker and flipped it on; it was a relatively simple machine, not like Drake’s Italian monster. “I came to help out, and I can’t help if I’m not here. What does Dad get for breakfast these days?”
“The doctor told him, no more bacon.” She smiled a little. “He doesn’t like that, but he wouldn’t cook it for himself, so it works out okay. I make him an egg, over easy, and some toast.”
“I can handle that.” I found the little cast-iron skillet, then exchanged it for a bigger one. “You’d like an egg, too, right?”
She sighed. “I just don’t feel hungry at all.”
“You can eat one egg, though.” The butter was in the same white melamine butter dish embossed with butterflies that had once been gold but were now pale and streaky. The eggs occupied their usual spot in a bin inside the avocado-green refrigerator. I remembered when that refrigerator was new, when I was in high school. The whole kitchen was in a time warp.
“So, you must be feeling better if you’re up.” I mixed some frozen orange juice while the butter melted. “What did you eat yesterday?”
She told me about the soup Molly had brought. Encounters with Biff fresh in my mind, I asked about Molly’s kids.
"Those boys are so spirited.” Mom beamed when she talked about them. They sounded like out-of-control, hormone-driven wild men to me, but I’m admittedly a maiden aunt where rowdy nephews are concerned. I remembered the oldest, Brendan, as a malevolent six-year-old, tormenting his younger brother and the new baby.
“So Amy and Byron go to the same school?”
“He likes to be called Biff, for some reason.” Mom shook her head, smiling fondly. “We saw two of the boys on Labor Day. Brewster and Biff are so tall. Had to bend way down to kiss their gramma.”
“You haven’t seen them since then?”
Her face clouded. “Biff was here the other day—you know. I told you about it. When him and your dad found Tony here. It certainly made me feel better to have a strong young man like Biff around then.”
“Right.” As long as he’s on your side.
“He came by once more for just a minute, but he didn’t have time to sit with his gramma. The boys are so busy, and so is Molly, just running around everywhere, never a moment to sit and talk.” She sighed. “I’ve been such a burden on them with this illness.”
Guilt struck like a well-thrown dart. I had been no help at all for the past sixteen years. Long-buried experience told me I would never be able to expiate my overdue account. I stifled an urge to burst into self-justification. My mother stated nothing more than the truth. If anyone should be doing more to care for her, it would be my dad. She had cared for him so long.
I turned back to the eggs, using the familiar old pancake turner, its wooden handle worn smooth. The faint sound of water stopped. I put toast in the toaster and poured another glass of juice. My mother sat up a little straighter when I put the juice and some silverware at the head of the table, facing into the living room, the place Dad sat in my memories.
The toast popped up, and I arranged it in buttered triangles on the faded blue forget-me-nots of the melamine plates. The eggs were done, too. Footsteps shuffled down the hall—not the ponderous strides I remembered.
“Smells good.” My dad appeared in the archway, sniffing. With his bent back and sunken chin, he was much smaller than the imposing, intimidating figure of my youth. He saw me and grabbed at the back of a chair.
“Hi, Dad.” I dished up the eggs, two on his plate, one on Mom’s. “I’m cooking this morning.”
Those bushy eyebrows came down; his mouth worked. His freshly shaven skin looked pink, but papery; the big nose was seamed with veins. His hands, the knuckles swollen and red, clutched the chair back for a moment before he drew himself up.
“We don’t need your help.” His voice was thick. He cleared his throat impatiently. “You’re not welcome here.”
My mother made a faint sound of protest. He shot her a fierce look.
Somehow, though, the melodramatic words tickled my funny bone. That big, stern lay-down-the-law man from my childhood was much more frightening than this old fellow.
“Welcome or not, I’ve made your breakfast.” I put the plate down at his place, and set one in front of my mother. I brought them each a cup of coffee, though I wasn’t sure my mother should have any, and a cup of tea I’d brewed for myself. “Sit down, Dad. Eat it while it’s hot.”
He moved around the table until he was staring down at the food. For a moment I thought he would throw the plate on the floor, like the ungovernable child he’d sometimes seemed. I pulled out the chair across from my mother and sat down with my tea. She was paler than ever, her eyes fixed on him in mute appeal.
He didn’t even notice. He sat down, pulled the salt over, and started eating.
My mother sighed, picked up her own fork, and cut into her egg, looking critically at the flood of yolk she’d released before using her toast to dam the flow. How many times had I seen her do that? When my dad looked around, I knew he wanted the apple jelly he liked on his toast. Silently I fetched it, and he accepted it. I sipped my tea and watched them. My mother, though downcast, finished most of her egg and a piece of toast. My father methodically worked his way through everything on his plate, ending with a final swipe of the toast across the forget-me-nots.
He pushed his plate away, took a noisy swallow of coffee, and fixed me with one cloudy eye. I reminded myself that he was eighty-three, past changing any of his prejudices.
“So, girl.” He sounded fierce. “Have you been to confession lately?”
“Not lately.” I shrugged. “Nothing to confess. I live a very quiet life.”
“In a shack, Renee said.” He looked at my mother, who nodded.
I was prepared for this. “It’s little and old—but I own it free and clear.” I pulled a picture out of my pocket. Drake had taken it just before Amy had left the previous month. The two of us were standing at the walk that led to my front door. Behind us was my house, softened out of focus into something quaint and English-looking, with Shasta daisies and scabiosa in full bloom on either side of the walk, and the glossy foliage of a Lady Banks rose climbing over the porch. “I think it’s nice, actually. Maybe not all modern like Andy’s place, but I get along fine there.”
Mom looked solemnly at the picture and handed it to Dad. “It’s not so bad.” She sounded tolerant. “Renee is spoiled by that nice kitchen.” She shook her head. "Those fancy black appliances show every finger mark, if you ask me.”
My dad looked at the picture and tossed it down. “Foundation’s going.”
I tucked the picture away and cleared the plates. “Well, anyway, I came here to help Mom through her illness, and I’m going to help today.”
“Molly was going to come, and bring her housekeeper.” Mom sounded hesitant.
“Housekeeper,” Dad grunted. “Fancy word for a wetback hired girl.”
Mom sat up straighter. “You know she doesn’t like you talking that way, Fergus.”
“She can come,” I said, interrupting before it could get out of hand. I filled Dad’s coffee cup; he looked up in surprised approval. “The work will be done before she gets here. Do your sheets need changing?”