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Ambrosia and pure spring water.

Every summer she and her husband drive down to the country to spend time with her mother and grandmother. She looks forward to these visits, especially now that the children are grown and gone. No alarms, flailing limbs, and roller coaster emotions that require constant, patient tending. The time now has slow, rich, unclocked rhythms. She and her mother peel potatoes, shell peas, polish furniture. Or she sits through long, soft, blue summer evenings with her astringent old grandmother, half-listening to Grandma's thin old-lady voice (which sounds much like the fiddling of the crickets) and half-listening to the silence beneath the country rustlings and creakings. Lately, Bill seems merely to tolerate these visits. He has acquired an aimlessness, sleeping in chairs and under trees, wandering around the yard; and they always have to call his name three and four times before he answers.

"Nadine! Nadine!" Their mother's voice pealed down from the second floor of the house, and Eleanor lifted her head. Nadine, perched on the wooden porch banister, her eyes riveted down the block, did not answer.

"Nadine! Nadine! Come in here, I'm calling you!"

Eleanor pinched her sister's leg. "Answer her. Or she's just gonna come get you!"

Nadine snatched her leg away and heaved a huge, shoulder-rolling, neck-twisting sigh. She stumped to the door and yelled through the screen, "What?"

"Don't answer me'what'!"

"Ma'am?"

"I asked you to fold clothes earlier today and I come in here--" Their mother's floating voice was coming closer and they could hear her heels thumping on the steps, so they knew she was coming down to them from the second floor. Nadine muttered, "Oh, damn!" and Eleanor raised her brows.

"I come in here and find two baskets of clothes just like I took them off the line. Girl, get in here and get busy!" Their mother stood in the screen door, hands on hips.

"Mom, can it wait? Bill and Antoine and Shubby're just now coming down the street with Sharon and Nika. I promised I'd go to the store with them. I'll fold clothes when I get back--"

"Who gave you permission to go?"

"Mom, I'm fourteen. It's just around the corner--"

"I didn't say you could go. Who'd you ask if it was all right for you to leave this house?"

"Mom--"

"Get upstairs!"

By this time Nadine's friends had arrived, but they didn't greet her immediately. They stood uncertainly around the steps, familiar with Nadine's quarrels with her mother and not wanting to draw her mother's attention. Nadine's mom had a way of looking at you that made you wish you were down the block and, if possible, behind a big tree.

"Mama," interposed Eleanor softly, "I'll help Deen fold clothes when she gets back. I was gonna ask her to buy me something. And Grandma said something earlier about a Cocola."

"Hey, Mrs. Andrews," Nadine's friends finally chorused.

"Hello." Their mother gave Nadine's friends her straight stare, then said to her older daughter, "Hold on, I want you to get me something. Let me get some money." She left the doorway.

Nadine turned her monkey grin on her friends. "Hey, y'all. Let's take the long way there."

Bill looked at Eleanor. "You coming?"

She shook her head.

Their mother came back with a list and a few dollar bills. Nadine grabbed the paper and the money and scampered down the steps. Eleanor watched her go. She really didn't want to go; their father would be coming down the sidewalk soon, and she preferred to wait for him rather than trail along behind Nadine and her friends. Besides, Nadine wouldn't want her along. But her father would rub his bristly cheek against hers and say, "Hey, sweets." Eleanor liked what she was doing, sitting on the top step in the blue summer dusk, waiting; and she saw no reason to go anywhere. Everything she wanted seemed to come to her.

Ellie is sitting on the steps when we drive up to Mom's and Grandma's. I still can't believe Mom bought this old house in the country. Maybe she's trying to relieve her youth, because the house is two-storied like the house we grew up in, and has a large front porch and a flight of steps just like the ones Ellie and I used to sit on. The first things you see when you walk into Mom's house are pictures of Dad and Granddad, eight-by-eleven studio portraits in gold-tone frames set on small tables on either side of the front door. The only men those two women ever knew, I guess. What they've missed!

Ellie is sitting on the steps by herself. She's wearing a rose-colored sundress, the ruffled hem pulled around her ankles like she thinks she's a little girl. No Bill in sight. I'm glad. Bill is such a bore.

We arrive in late afternoon. The house faces west. Ellie with her dress around her ankles sits in the low slanting light and it's kind to her: She looks almost like she did when we were kids. Jerome steers the car off the dirt driveway, parks it under the big pecan tree, and we get out, saunter to the house. Ellie rises just as we reach the bottom of the steps. She looks down on us, puts out a hand.

"Hey, girl," I say, "where's old Bill? This is Jerome." I take her hand and it is warm. I come up the steps and bump her cheek with mine. "How're things?"

"Good to see you, Deen," says Ellie. Her voice has some of the quality of the mourning dove's calling from the woods in back of the house, deep and throaty. "Jerome." She puts out her hand to Jerome and he takes it. Something passes between them. I don't know what, but I know something does. However, Ellie has a way with young people. She's a school teacher (don't know how she stands it), so maybe he's responding to her schoolteacheriness. He doesn't smile. He loosens his grip quickly. She steps aside. "Go on into the kitchen. Mama's frying up enough chicken for a football team." Her voice is full of amusement.

I take Jerome's arm. "Come on."

He seems to hesitate. Then he comes along. I pull him closer to me so we can go in the door together.

Bill watches from the shade of a moss-draped tree. A mockingbird is breaking out in short bursts of notes, running up the scale, down a portion of the scale, preparing for its evening song. Bill watches his wife in her sunset-colored dress, sees her bow her head, stroke the back of her neck, then turn and vanish into the house.

He's not going in, oh no, not yet. Not until his mother-in-law has recovered from the shock of Nadine's latest. From his clothes and walk, a young man. That'd be like Nadine. He'll wait out here in the peace, concentrate on the mocking bird and the mourning doves, on the scraping of grasshoppers in the dry field across the narrow dirt road. Red Georgia dirt. It is too quiet around here without the children. He misses their high-pitched shouts, their quarrels, screeching, and laughter. He knows that Eleanor does not miss the children these days when she is visiting her mother; she likes being daughter in the house again, relishes not being in the middle and pulled in a multitude of directions. However, he cannot blame her. She is the best of mothers to their children, always has been. She deserves the respite. He stands staring at the spot where she had glowed in the sun, head bowed, slim brown hand touching the curve of her neck. Eleanor is beautiful. He is mystified that she married him, appears to love him, stays with him even though he is now getting old--cheeks sagging, belly sagging, hair receding. She still hugs him in her sleep.

I love the look on Mom's face. Jerome is just two year's older than my oldest son. Her throat works: The struggle to be polite almost strangles her. Her eyes bulge. But I warned Jerome that my family might be difficult, so he holds out his hand and turns on that smile that makes women want to shimmy out of their pantyhose, and Mom shakes his hand, dazed. My baby is really something.

Ellie comes into the kitchen, starts taking dishes out of the cabinets. Jerome turns to look at her. Because he is company, we're going to eat in the dining room, a big gloomy affair with chairs solid enough to seat elephants, pale blue wallpaper covered with these saucer-sized roses, and doilies everywhere. Ugh. The furniture is Grandma's.

"Your rooms are ready," says Ellie, tinkling silverware. "And the fresh towels're in the bathroom. Why don't you-all freshen up? Dinner'll be on the table soon."

I start to say that there won't be any need for "rooms," just one room will do for me and Jerome, but, well ...why start a hassle? There's no law that says Jerome and I have to stay in our separate rooms after everybody else is snoring. I take Jerome's arm. "Come on."

She took her father's arm, and they mounted the steps. He paused, stroked a post. "Gotta paint all this soon," he sighed. "Get Deen's friends to help," she giggled. "They're around all the time."

"That's an idea." He put his hand on the top of her head as if he wished to press down and keep her from growing any more. She tilted her head back, relishing the feel of her father's huge, rough hand sliding down her braids. Then she butted him playfully.

"Come on," said Eleanor, in her element, happy. "Mama's fixed country-fried steak and mashed potatoes tonight."

"Our favorite."

"Ummmmmmm-hhmmmm!"

He nodded slightly. His wife usually cooked something he really liked after they had had a quarrel. The word sorry seemed always to stick in her throat, so she said it with food--and hard, sharp little hugs in the dark. She was far from the laughing, swaggering girl he had married, the girl who sneaked out of her dorm room after hours, who bopped and smoked and could throw a fur piece around her shoulders with the high-handed flair of a Broadway actress. Hard times had hardened her. She loved him and was disappointed in him. It was a twisting combination.

"Come on," said Eleanor, leading him through the door with her.

"Call Bill in," says her mother, and Eleanor goes back to the front door and raises her voice. She finally sees him standing in the shade of the tree, a dapple of light on his sloping shoulders. She turns abruptly, back into the gloom of the house. Her body still pulses from the electricity that had arced between her and Jerome.

I've been to this place before, and I never liked it, I still don't like it, and I'm not going to stand for it. Eleanor, raise your eyes from that plate, you ain't fooling anybody; it's all pretense, it's always been pretense; you know what's going on and, just like always, you're going to do what you want, take what you please, to hell with anybody else--

Stupid Bill. Stupid, stupid Bill. Sitting there like a knot on Fido's behind while his wife flirts with another man, coming on to him just by sitting still and not doing anything. They all fell for that, hung around waiting for her to move. Most times it was into the house she went anyway, but they stayed on the porch waiting for her to come out again while me, smiling, and Sharon and Nika posed and talked and tilted our heads...but they look for Eleanor. Sweet little, nice little, honey-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth little Eleanor. My little sister Eleanor.

"It's because she doesn't swarm or clutch," my father once said to me when I complained to him that Eleanor was stealing everybody's boyfriends. I wanted to hit him. Stupid man.

"You coming?" said Bill. "No, I'm waiting," she answered. He left with the others but trailed behind, looking back until Nadine grabbed his arm and yanked him into the group.

"Im going to have white hair," thinks Eleanor," and soft, saggy wrinkles all over my face and rippling down my neck and arms. My hands will be stick-thin and knobby. My back will bow. I will look like Grandma. He will still be upright and pretty, and the grey in his hair will be distinguished." She looks up, skates her gaze away from Jerome's dark, intent eyes. She meets her grandmother's eyes. Grandma is toothlessly munching her soft vegetables, but those and her wrinkles are the only soft things about her. Nadine's voice is getting very shrill and gay. Mama's voice is sharp. Jerome asks her to please pass the cornbread, and she proffers the china plate. His hand shakes slightly when he takes it.

Grandma orders me to sit with her in the living room. Jerome offers to help with the dishes--Mom doesn't have a dishwasher, I can't see why not, she's got enough money. Well. Mom's in the kitchen with them, and she could cool down dogs in heat. Nothing will go on under Mom's eye. Mom's cold eye. Mom's eye like a scalpel, searching for the tumor in you, the fault in you, the imperfection in you. Gonna cut it out and lay it on the table in public for anybody to see. No secrets from Mom.

What's she gonna say to Eleanor, coming on to a man right under her husband's nose, her own sister's man, young enough to be her son?

Bill walks down the dirt road in front of the house, in the mellow light of a full, rising moon. Fireflies blink yellow-green in the undergrowth. He hears click beetles. And crickets. He is walking fast and not looking back, not looking back to see if Eleanor is waiting.

Her mother leaves the kitchen for some reason, and Eleanor opens her mouth to call her back, then thinks, "This is silly. I'm forty-two years old and this boy's the same age as my oldest son. Nothing can happen."

But something happens. Jerome clears his throat, takes a dish from her to wipe with his terrycloth towel. He clears his throat again. "Nadine didn't say anything about how beautiful you are."

Eleanor murmurs, "Thank you. But Deen can't brag on me without bragging on herself. We're a lot alike." This is not true. Less true now that Nadine has dyed a red-blonde patch in the top of her head, a patch gelled to stand straight up and the rest of her hair divided into terraced layers. Just like the young kids. Poor Nadine. She was never on time: always ahead, always behind, never where she wanted to be when she wanted to be there. Forty-five-year-old woman with red patches in her head.

Eleanor suddenly lifts her head and laughs. "Nadine, my sister, Nadine. She's something else!"

Silence. Jerome is forgetting to rub the plate. heat is growing between them, a pulling like tides, directional signals like sunflowers turning in the sun. She remembers the first time Bill put his arms around her, kissed her mouth. It was something like this.

Jerome says, "Mrs. Nelson--Eleanor--"

Eleanor. Eleanor. I know Jerome is thinking about Eleanor. "Nadine, look, I just feel funny with your mother and your grandmother so close, bet they can hear everything through the walls--"

That's just an excuse. I know it is. I grab him, latch my arms around his neck. Please, Jerome, don't push me away--

"Nadine--"

I push him away. Sob. Wipe at tears. My eyes dry up. I hiss. I tell him--

Grandma thumps on the wall. I hear her creaky voice, faint but plain: "Stop being a fool and let me get some sleep!"

I freeze.

Jerome pushes at me.

I jump out of the bed, run, run from the house.

Bill, awake, feels Eleanor slide from the bed, hears her feet whisper across the floor as she searches for her slippers. He keeps his breathing quiet. She's going to him, the handsome young man who wants her, whose wanting was like an undertow at the dinner table, thunder in the water, threat in the air--

No. She would not do that in her mother's house. Nor to her sister. Where is she going? She is leaving him, she will walk away and not look back, leaving him waiting.

Beautiful woman. Rich with beauty, like a summer field under a full moon, silver light and grey shadows, grasses bowing under breaths of air, fireflies winking, the chirring of crickets, movement and stillness in one--

Eleanor goes.

Nadine comes. Racing down across the yard without any shoes on apparently, from the way she's stumbling and hobbling, silly woman never would wait even to get what she needed to ward off hurt.

She is sobbing. Pulling at her hair. Very dramatic. Her thin gown is a white transparency in the moonlight. You can see right through to her.

Jerome, poised on the front steps, can.

Bill, lying in bed, looks out into the dark.

Grandmother sleeps. Her withered lips flutter.

Mother grits her teeth and remembers a fox-fur cape flying over her shoulders, trailing her as she climbs out of a college dormitory window into the arms of a young man whose latter-day face peers out of a golden frame set on a table just as you come into this house, and she wants him, wants him, wants him, remembers the pulling between them like undertows, heat growing between them, and she grits her teeth for her older daughter, whom she can see right through.

"Deen, stop it."

Nadine's head snaps up. Her voice is hoarse. "Bitch. Horny little bitch. What were you hoping, that he'd somehow know you were out here? Did you set it up in the kitchen doing dishes, plan to slip off down the road, find a patch of grass--"

"Shut up, Deenie. I was waiting for you."

"You're lying--"

"Deen, you're not thinking. I was with Bill; then I came out to wait for you. I knew you'd come."

"How could you know? Oh, you just guessed Jerome would push me out the bed--"

"Not so hard to guess. Almost everybody's got better manners and a sense of timing than you, Deenie."

Her slippers are dew-soaked, so her feet are getting cold. Nadine's bare feet must already be chilled. The hems of their gowns are wet.

Nadine croaks, "What'd you say?"

"You're a fool, Nadine. So's Bill. So am I. Jerome's just a randy kid; he doesn't count."

"Huh?"

"Come into the house. We'll make tea. We'll get warm. We'll go to bed--you in your bed, I in Bill's. Don't you know yet that this kind of thing passes?"

Nadine sobs. Eleanor puts out her hands, rubs her sister's goose-fleshed arms. "Fool." Her voice is affectionate, soft as a mourning dove's. "Take that child on back home. Sit still awhile. And stop picking on me."

"You always got them when we were girls, always--" hiccups Nadine.

"Not all," contradicts Eleanor, "just Bill. And you never really wanted him."

"I did! I did!"

"Only because he wanted me. You're an idiot, poor Deenie, dear Deenie--" Eleanor is holding her sister and rocking her in the moonlight, steadying her shudders.

Nadine snuffles, "Oh, God. How'd you get to be so perfect?"

"It's easy to look perfect around you. All I have to do is sit still. You're so busy bounding around, grabbing and pushing and yanking and rushing, I just look good in contrast."

With Eleanor's arm around Nadine's shoulders, they walk back to the house. Their mother stands on the front steps. She gives her daughters her straight stare.

"Teapot's on." She pulls open the screen door of her country house. "What'll we have, pound cake or toast?"

No Nadine. No Jerome. Peace descends. Bill is walking away from her, not looking back, walking in the track of Nadine's car. Nadine driving that child back to his place. Maybe she'll even dye that stupid-looking red patch of hair back to its natural color.

"Bill!" Eleanor calls. She has to call again. "Bill!" He stops. She runs down the steps, across the yard. She wants to scold him for not trusting her, for being hangdog and absent when presence counted. She says, "Bill!"

There are times when he has looked at her as if he were a man starving and thristing in a desert and she was ambrosia and pure spring water at a sudden oasis. For that she has always waited for him. Eleanor knows enough to give what she has been given, to offer what she hopes to keep.

She rubs his belly familiarly, leans her face against his chest. "Mama," she says, her voice low, "Mama wants you to go into town and get some denture tablets for Grandma's teeth."

He shouts with laughter. Birds spring out of the trees into the morning sunlight.

He goes into the house, picks up his car keys and a list from his mother-in-law, who, for once, is not frowning at him. When he comes out of the house, his wife is sitting on the steps, denim skirt drawn around her ankles. He stands behind her, and she leans her head back against his legs. He looks down at her. Silver hairs glint in the dark cloud of her hair. Ambrosia and pure spring water.
COPYRIGHT 1994 African American Review
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Black Women's Culture Issue; short story
Author:Rawls, Melanie A.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Words:3583
Previous Article:Giving blood to the scraps, haints, history, and Hosea in 'Beloved.' (Black Women's Culture Issue)
Next Article:Early black women playwrights and the dual liberation motif.
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