Ssssttt the cigarette ash sputtered extinguished in a puddle of what was once ice in bottom of
aunt Susie’s cup. A long summer’s day winding down, she twisted in her chair away from the breeze and lit another. In response, there was a rise in the chorus from the frogs, cicadas and crickets reminding me of our raucous arrival earlier that day.
It was late afternoon when the entirety of our extended family, like a veritable plague, descended upon our grandparent’s house for our regular crab feast. We were, the lot of us, a loud, rowdy and rebellious brood. We arrived en masse in a battery of Chrysler’s, Chevy’s and Ford’s grinding red, muddy grooves all the way up the driveway. Car doors sprang open and father, mother, sister, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins and various other refugees from a quieter world spilled out into grandma’s garden. Despite the previous night’s downpour, the summer drought had yellowed the grass till it crunched underfoot. Soon after, the historic oak groaned under the weight of an overloaded tire swing, the azaleas lurched when vaulted by tireless adolescents and the hydrangea cringed as crying toddlers pulled their pretty blue petals. From up on the hill, cousin Bobby shouted, “rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.” He’d flung the doors open on the rickety hutch beside the rickety tin shed releasing the rabbits which were then running rampant chased by thirty-some-odd junior reprobates. From the porch, Grandpa, ornery and always three drinks ahead, ranted “For God’s sake, stop that racket, racket, racket!”
Grandma, as striking in beauty as strident in voice, strode out from the screened porch to hug and scold all of us in general. Grandma could neither be too loving nor too concerned for our mortal souls. Spotting me, already cricket tracking with one of her empty preserve jars in hand, she waved for me to follow her into the kitchen. The crab pot was still simmering. All around it were counters and tables copiously stacked with every kind of fried this and baked that. From the pantry, she handed me a much coveted bottle of Coke, a payment in advance. I was good at finding things. Setting out on my mission, I snagged a biscuit and shoved it in my pocket. “Cheater, cheater, cheater” fussed cousin Therese
standing on a stove-side stool tending the tapioca. “Stir it, stir it, stir it” shushed grandma in reply.
After looking in the usual places, I climbed the stairs to the attic. My hair spun in the unexpected cross current formed by the open windows and overhead fans. The fans, their blades imbalanced, wobbled on their stems. Beside the broad rear dormer window was a grand bed and in it lay my great-grandmother. Nana was propped on her side by a mound of down pillows. Her worn body was slowly and permanently curving into a crescent.
She stared, absently, out the open window overlooking the family strewn yard and the old maple tree with its leaves the color of black cherries and grape soda. Nana, I’d been told, had always been a bit of a wild woman, both daring and a tad ribald. All that I could remember was that she’d loved to dance, gladly hitched a ride on a motorcycle when needed and ate rose-shaped candy made of coarse sugar and mint. Now she lay still, frail and her pale skin glistened with the white translucency of a frog’s belly. I leaned forward and kissed her cheek which seemed too cool on a such a hot day. “Clacketta, clacketta, clacketta” beat the fans overhead. “Kachick, kachick, kachick” came the unexpected response from behind me.
Turning, I saw great-aunt Letty in front of the window at the far end of the room pedaling the foot pedal of her old sewing machine with her hand-made patterns rustling under a doorstop at her feet. Framed by fluttering, sun-faded sheers, she guided a future sleeve under the needle. Just this side of deaf, she was blissfully unaware of me or almost
anything else other than the feel of her cloth and the thrumming of her machine. Returning to my mission, it didn’t take long to find the gin bottle. I found it tucked in the bookcase on the wall beside nana’s bed cradled in a garden glove behind a statue of the Virgin Mary. Grandpa had a wicked sense of humor. The smell of crabs and Old Bay
drifted in through the window. From outside I heard my cousins taunting, “strike out, strike out, strike out.” Then there was crack of a bat against a ball followed by even louder and more vehement cries of “catch it, catch it, catch it!”
Realizing that I was missing the game, I flew down the stairs, consigned the demon bottle to grandma, and rushed out to get my turn at bat. I brushed passed the picnic tables
shrouded in newspaper and crowned with steaming mounds of orange crabs, passed the buckets of empty shells and the aunts and uncles working diligently pounding, cracking and crunching their way through that first bushel. Several bushels, hours and a brief summer shower later the sun was pressing in low and hard from the west. Our elders sat and talked among themselves oblivious to those of us purposely sliding into home base churning up the wet grass in the process and oblivious to the young ones, hunched under the still dripping trees, joyously smooshing together piles of mud and proudly plopping them on paper plates.
Eventually, spent, I flopped on a vacant lawn chair, contentedly looked out and found myself quite pleased at our glorious and messy spectacle. From where I sat, I thought I could just make out nana’s outline in the window. I wanted to believe that as she lay there so gently curled in down, devoid of all color, a mere breath from transparency that she could still see the round globules of water purple and fat pendulous on the black cherry lips of those maple leaves and the orange shock of sunlight pitched low over the lawn striking a child’s plate, that plate laden with a rich red mud pie, a great turd of a thing plunked right in its center. I hoped, that she could still see the yellowed grass clinging like golden leeches to summer brown arms and summer brown legs, hear the tin song from the shed, the wind hush of leaves and remember the taste of mint roses, rough sugar on her tongue.
Ssssttt hissed another ember as it fought being extinguished. Once again, I heard the litany surge and continue tirelessly in all its blessed iterations. The crickets’ stirring staccato, the cicadas’ mad maracas, and the frogs’ belching baritone entreating “respite, respite, respite.”
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