Thy Brother’s Keeper
Iron Mary poured thick, chicory-laced coffee into two chipped mugs and set them on the three-legged, formica-topped table propped into one corner of her kitchen. Easing herself onto a rickety, straight-backed chair she nudged a tin of evaporated milk toward her brother.
Picking up the tin, Grady poured until his coffee was the color of brown sugar then returned it to the table and tapped the silver top with a blunt fingertip. Squinting one eye nearly closed he grinned across the table. “You remember what we used to say after Ma started buying this canned cow?
“No tits to pull
No shit to pitch.
Just punch a hole
In the sonuvabitch.”
His grin broadened as Iron Mary threw back her head and laughed. When she righted herself there was a dribble of tobacco juice at one corner of her mouth.
“How long’ve you lived here now, Sis?”
Iron Mary slurped her coffee and looked around the room. Scrunching up her face she spat into the Old Luzianne can that served as spittoon. “Thirty year come fall,” she said in a voice thick with phlegm . . . then added, “Mebbe thirty-one.”
“And nobody left now but you.”
“Well, me ’n that damned billy goat,” she nodded toward the yard outside the window. “He wouldn’t stay around ‘cept nobody else’ll bake him biscuits. The mangy bastard ate the tops off two rows of my winter carrots last week. If I could find the bullets to my rifle I’d shoot him, if I could find my rifle. I’d shoot him right between the eyes only he’s so hard headed it prob’ly wouldn’t take. Why’d you ask?”
“Oh, I was just thinking about all the people who’re gone,” Grady said. Staring out the back door at what had once been a piddling town but was now nothing but collapsed buildings and overgrown lots, he sighed. “The place sure lived up to its name, huh?”
Iron Mary cackled at that, the dribble of tobacco juice turning into a trickle she had to wipe away with the leathery palm of her hand. “You’re remembering what Ma said, ain’t you?”
“We come up the hill in that old yella pick-up truck with the burnt-out clutch. Me, you, and Buell in the back; Ma and Pa up front. Took us what, two and a half, three hours to climb the mountain? Pa stopping every couple of miles to fill the radiator and Ma getting madder every time he pulled over. Uprooted was the word she used, wadn’t it? Uprooted and moved with never so much as a do-you-mind, is what she said. Then after the longest time we turned yonder at the bottom of what ended up being Main Street. Pa puffed up big and proud as a peacock, Whataya think, darling? he asked Ma. Seems mighty small, she says with a sniff. That kind of put him off so he tells her he somehow recollected the place as being bigger than this. Well, Ma says, it sure as hell must a’ shrunk.”
Iron Mary laughed so hard she hiccupped, then spat into the coffee can and slurped from her mug. “By the time they got around to giving us a post office Pa’s store was doing so good nobody argued when he said that ought to be the name of the place . . . Mustashrunk.”
“Ma never did think it was funny,” Grady grinned.
“Can you blame her?” Iron Mary’s voice took on an edge. “Little pissant town in the middle of the road and her without a friend or neighbor to her name.”
Grady took time to roll and light a cigarette before returning the Prince Albert can to his hip pocket and wiping at the table top with a callused hand. “I miss her, Sis, you know? Her being gone all these years and I still miss her something fierce. Pa, too.”
“If you’d ever settled down with a good woman it’d be easier for you now,” Iron Mary said.
“Sure,” Grady said derisively. “Like having a man around ever did you a lot of good. Twice widowed and your kids never coming to visit. What do you get for your trouble, Christmas cards from California?”
Iron Mary took her time getting up from the table. Crossing to the chipped enamel sink she gazed out the window at the thickening dusk. “Lookit that damned goat,” she muttered. “Standing spraddle-legged in the middle of my garden deciding what he’s gonna eat next. The sonuvabitch done got half a row of beets.” Rapping sharply on the pane with bony knuckles she hollered through the glass. “GET OUTTA THERE YOU MANGY, LOP-EARED BASTARD! AND STAY OUT ELSE I’LL BARBECUE YOUR SPOTTED ASS.”
Fetching the coffee from the stove she refilled their mugs then resumed her seat and sighed.
“It ain’t as bad as you make out, Grady. My daughters done good for themselves. It’s only their husbands I can’t abide me. I don’t blame the girls for staying away; a woman’s first loyalty is to her man. God knows I was loyal to mine, both of ’em. Me and that four-poster bed in yonder plumb wore the first one out. The way we went at it it’s a wonder I ain’t got a dozen chil’run. And the second one was just as randy. Yes sir, I always did like my lovin’. Still do, ‘cept finding a willing partner ain’t as easy these days.” She cleared her throat and emptied it into the coffee can. “The fact I don’t have steady company’s no reason you shouldn’t be warm at night. Don’t you get tired living alone?”
Grady stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray then reached again for the condensed milk. “I reckon I do, but who’d have me? When I was a younger man I was too worried about whiskey, horses and the kind of gal I daren’t bring home. Now I’m three years into social security and live in a shack that makes this place look like something special. I got two hun’erd dollars in the bank, a crippled hound near old as me, a Massey Ferguson tractor that runs half the time, and just enough corn to keep my hogs fed through the winter if we don’t get a long spell of snow. My knees creak like hick’ry splits, my teeth were made by a jackleg dentist, and I don’t shave these days as it’s easier not to. I smell of farts and failure, Sis. Oh yeah, I’m a door prize.”
“That depends on who you talk to,” Iron Mary wiped a thread of tobacco juice from her chin. “Esther McClung’d give her eyeteeth to get you, assuming she had any. She asks of you every time I see her. She gets a faraway look in her eye when your name comes up, Grady. Was she a younger woman I’d call her giddy.”
“Ester McClung,” he snorted. “Now that’d be a match, wouldn’t it? She’d have me cleaned up, watered down, and sitting in the front pew at church before I got my duffle unpacked. Why I’d be tiptoeing around her house in sock feet afraid to scuff the carpet. And Lord knows she’d all the time be pestering me to do this, do that, or do something else. Ester McClung? No thank you, ma’am.”
“What about Imogene Walkup then? There’s a woman to keep your back warm come cold weather. Living above the drugstore the way she does, your place’d seem a mansion to her. Imogene likes her pork, too. She’s always asking after your hogs.”
“No wonder, fat as she is. I’m not sure I got enough corn to keep her fed all winter.”
“Well, I’m beginning to see why you sleep alone, Grady. Your problem is you’re too damn particular and that’s not good in a man your age.” With that Iron Mary folded her hands and pursed her lips, staring down into her lap.
Grady extracted the Prince Albert can from his back pocket and took his time rolling another cigarette. He lit it with a kitchen match and took a deep drag. When Iron Mary refused to look up from her lap he sighed.
“Understand me, Sis. I ain’t gonna do it,” he said softly. Before she could protest, he continued, “Ever’ time you start talking about women lusting after me it ends up this same way—you wanting me to move in here. I ‘preciate your concern, truly I do. But the answer is no just like it was the last time this come up and will be the next. You know I love you, Sis. And I know you’re as lonely as I am, but it just ain’t right.”
Embarrassed, Iron Mary sniffled. Looking up from under a long hank of gray hair she took in a whistling breath and let it out slowly. “Buell didn’t see the wrong in it,” she reminded him quietly. “It didn’t hurt him none, neither, if you ask me,” she added lamely.
“That’s not the point and you know it. Besides, Buell’s dead. I ought to know, I buried him.”
“I still can’t believe the two of you fought over me.”
“Not over you, Sis—about you. It ain’t the same thing.”
“What do they call it, what you done?”
“It’s called fratricide and it’s a sin.”
“We’re all sinners, Grady. That’s the thing of it.”
“The thing of it is I’m searching for redemption.”
“Well, it ain’t like you and me never done it before, Grady.”
“That was then, Sis, this is now. Christ, we were kids. We didn’t know any better. Leastways I didn’t know any better.”
“Buell weren’t a kid these last several years. He knew better and still liked it just fine.”
Grady simply looked at her.
“Come on to bed with me, Grady,” Iron Mary said. “The night get long and I’m chilled to the bone.”
“I can’t, Sis,” Grady’s face knotted up until it looked like a clenched fist. “I won’t,” his voice cracked over the word.
Iron Mary rose from the table and went to the sink again. Peering out the window she hissed, “Lookit that sonuvabitch.” Clawing to throw up the sash she stuck out her head and screamed, “GET OUTTA THERE YOU HEATHEN FROM HELL! TOUCH ANOTHER ONE OF THEM CABBAGES AND I’LL CASTRATE YOU!”
Slamming the window shut she backhanded a jelly glass off the drain board onto the floor where it skittered across the worn linoleum. “God damn,” she spat. “I do not know why I put up with that critter!”
With her back to her brother, Iron Mary stood frozen for several minutes while the silence grew until it was somehow louder than her yelling had been. Turning from the window she leaned across the table and rested her weight on stiffened arms. Her face was inches from Grady’s, half-curtained by a stringy hank of hair. She caught his eyes with hers, her gaze pinning him to the chair like an insect specimen. Her face was creased, like wadded cloth, a soft brown trickle of tobacco juice at one corner of her mouth.
“I’m going to my room now,” she said softly. “Be sure to turn off the light before you come in.”
Grady stared up at her. After a moment he blinked.
“Or before I leave,” he said.
“Or that,” Iron Mary pushed herself upright. Using her tongue to work the plug of tobacco from her cheek she spat it into the coffee can. Wiping her chin dry she smoothed the wrinkled front of her dress with nervous hands, her bony fingers plucking lightly at the buttons as she turned from the table in an arthritic pirouette.
She paused at the kitchen doorway.
“You and me’re all either of us got left, Grady,” she told his back. “Hell, we’re all we ever had whether you admit it or not. And don’t try to tell me you ain’t chilled, too.”
Motionless at the table Grady focused his eyes on one of the oilcloth’s red checkerboard squares.
He heard the floorboards creak as Iron Mary walked down the hallway to her bedroom.
After a while he got up from his chair and carefully gathered up the chipped mugs as if they were priceless china then placed them in the sink.
He heard Iron Mary pulling the bedroom window curtains closed.
Returning the tin of condensed milk to the refrigerator he noticed the only other items on the shelves were a bottle of Heinz catsup, half a loaf of Wonder Bread, and an open package of Oscar Mayer bologna.
He heard Iron Mary’s work shoes being kicked off into a corner.
Looking out the kitchen window he saw that the goat was still in the garden, contentedly munching a rutabaga.
He heard the bed creak in protest as it took Iron Mary’s weight.
Crossing to the short wall between the two doors, one leading outside and the other down the hallway, Grady raked the fingers of one hand through his hair then wash-ragged the same hand across his face as if that would somehow change his features.
He listened to the catch in Iron Mary’s breathing as she cried.
Standing alone in the dimly lit kitchen, like an actor left on stage, Grady wondered how they’d come to this? Or rather, wondered how they never seemed to have left it?
He heard the bedsprings creak as Iron Mary rolled over, the sound of her fist striking a pillow.
His mind’s eye could picture her withered body, awash in tears and shivering beneath the Eastern Star quilt that once covered their childhood bed. From nowhere one of his mother’s homilies came to Grady, the one she had used to instruct her children on the importance of family; Home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in. It amazed him how the more things changed the more they really did stay the same. And it amazed him, too, that after all these years he was still able to cry.
With the sound of his sister’s sobbing thick in his ears Grady stood betwixt the two doorways, coughed softly and, with fingers as wooden as his heart, reached for the wall switch to turn off the light.