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. “Your turn.”
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 see him.
“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.”