It was the first day of summer and the last day of innocence. The last day of my teetering between manhood and adolescence, indulging in the splendor of stupid youth; the last day of spring, 1973 when the lights of bliss and security were turned out in my world. There was something mystical about the walk to the mailbox that morning; something peculiar about the way the wind cascaded over me, a fresh boy of 18, as I crept down the s-shaped driveway. The mists were clearing as Blue Jays darted through the moist air, announcing the breaking of day.
The houses in our secret little cul-de-sac were still sleeping as the sun gently and considerately peeked over the hills in the distance. Faint yellow flickers from lamp posts and porch lights that were still lit from the night before faded at the emergence of dawn. I leaned against our mailbox, using my hand as a visor, trying to identify the two figures coming down on opposite sides of Begonia Street. I could make out one of the figures as Claude Greene.
Claude always went jogging at the crack of dawn. His lanky form resembled a giraffe when he ran; so graceful, steady and methodical. His sinewy arms pumped up and down and his lips, barely parted, drew in carefully-selected intermittent breaths. I moved my bare feet from the blades of dew-covered, cool grass to the unforgiving warm sidewalk in front of our redbrick house.
“Hi, Mr. Greene,” I mouthed, smiling and throwing up my hand at the fleeting giraffe. He slowed down, bent over with his hands on knees; shoulders bobbing up and down. He cleared his throat twice then licked his dry lips.
“Your folks ever get them gophers under control out back?” he asked, wiping sweat from his forehead.
“Naw…” I said. I looked past him at the woman who was closing in on him.
“Well tell your mother I got a new stock of that rat poison she asked about,” he said.
I swatted at a mosquito. “She already got a whole bunch of it from Tulsons,” I said.
He started jogging in place. “Just tell her, Jimmy Neal,” he screeched.
He bent the circle and accelerated in the other direction, running past the stout lady who had been his companion on the way up. I put my hand back up to my forehead and watched the plump lady inch closer toward me. She wore a tight raged brown tweed suit and ashy black dress shoes that had all but fallen apart from supporting her heaviness over time. The straw hat on her head covered black and gray hair—hair that had obviously been rolled up with soft pink rollers overnight. Her dark face was plump and her hairline, in the absence of a prominent forehead, seemingly sat on top of her eyebrows. She had on large faux pearl clip-on earrings and a matching necklace that was half-hidden by the rolls in her neck. She mumbled to herself as she approached our house. The gray suitcase she carried with her left hand was packed beyond capacity; she carried a wrinkled and worn brown grocery bag in the cradle of her right arm. She nodded her head in true southern politeness as she stood in front of me.
“How do?” she said with a smile.
The birds’ chatter grew to an unusual uproar in the neighborhood around us. Mr. Denson, the mortician who lived next door, stepped out into his front yard with his bucket and washrags to clean the long, black limo in his driveway.
“Hello.” I replied to the lady, eyeing her cautiously—wondering who she could be.
Her smile grew to cover half her face as her floppy straw hat fell further forward, covering her eyes. She put down the suitcase and grocery bag groaning as she stooped down and moaning as she slowly stood back up.
“Guess you wondering who I am?”
“Well, I am your Auntie Matilda. Matilda Martin,” she said with a deep, proud laugh that shook her belly. She pushed back her hat and tried to warm me with her smile, but her eyes were too sad—too distant and cold.
“My aunt?” I asked. I’d heard mama talk about an older sister of hers from back home in Canton but she didn’t like talking about her. From what I could make of mama’s late night conversations with daddy on the porch, she hated her sister and hadn’t seen her since we moved to Richmond. She’d said that her sister had scalded her with boiling water one summer then pushed her down a shaft the following winter. As they grew into adults the abuse, albeit more sporadic, became more serious and callous.
“Yes, your aunt, honey. You must be…” she started before her eyes looked past my shoulder. I knew mama was in the doorway. She would be angry for sure, and would beat me with the strap for even talking to Matilda Martin. I prepared myself for a tongue lashing.
“Sister!” mama screamed with simulated joy from the doorway. I turned around with raised eyebrows at her. Mama opened the screen door and rested her hand on her hip. For the first time in my life, her smile revealed contempt. She sashayed onto the porch, allowing the flimsy screen door to slam shut. Her bedroom shoes swished across the porch as she positioned herself to welcome her sister. Mama threw the red checkered dish towel across her shoulder after she wiped her hands on it.
“Hello, sister dear,” Matilda Martin sang, clapping and running past me—leaving her bags on the sidewalk.
Mama waved politely at the mortician as he hosed down the black limousine.
“Jimmy Neal, get your auntie’s things…bring ‘em in,” she said coyly. Her eyes were swift and cat-like as she helped her sister up the steep steps and into the house. The new sun changed position and retreated behind cumulus clouds, darkening the wide sky as the wind tickled our wind chimes causing them to dance.
“What’s that smell so good, sister?” Matilda Martin called out.
“Brunswick Stew,” mama said.
I stepped into the dark living room behind the sisters and watched mama as she moved about the tidy dinning room, setting a place for Matilda Martin on the ivory lace tablecloth.
“Well come on Tilda, sit down and eat…been cooking since midnight,” mama announced. She laid out a crystal goblet and a big polished silver spoon.
Matilda shuffled from the living room where she had deposited her run-over shoes. She prattled about the pictures on the wall as she inhaled the yellow rose mama had placed in the middle of the dining room table.
“Well, why don’t we sit and talk a bit first,” Matilda said with joy in her voice. “Been so long, sister,” she giggled like a little girl.
She cut her eyes at me and smiled again. “Well…I guess I am hungry… but who eat Brunswick Stew for breakfast?” she asked rhetorically. I shrugged my shoulders. Matilda plopped down in the chair at the dinning room table. “Whew,” she sighed.
“Oh come now,” mama said patting Matilda on the shoulder. “I made this big pot just for you.” Matilda’s eyes danced and she licked her lips as mama told her the ingredients. “Onions, bell pepper, tomatoes, corn…”
Mama disappeared back into the kitchen and brought a garage bag. “Jimmy Neal, take this trash out back and put it in the garbage can with the tight lid on it.” I took the bag from mama
“Mama, Mr. Greene said…”
“Go do what I told you boy!” mama snapped. She painted the ridiculous smile back on her thin face as she darted to the kitchen again and returned with a huge pot and ladle, humming along the way. She sat the pot down on the table in front of her sister.
“Here we are,” mama said with a deceitful smile. She ladled a big helping of stew into the delicate, pretty China bowl that she never used. Almost immediately, her sister plunged the big, shinny spoon into the thick stew and shoved it into her mouth. Matilda closed her eyes and moaned with satisfaction.
“This sure is good. Not like mama’s though,” she said as she ate more and more of the stew. Every time she took a bite, mama refilled her bowl.
Mama looked up at me and her smile disappeared. “If I tell you to go one more time…” she yelled. I scurried out of the dining room, through the living room and onto the porch. I took the screen door and slammed it as hard as I could on my way to the porch. Once there, I found a hiding place behind the old recliner that daddy had put outside for cool nights and casual talks. I peeped in through the screen door and listened as best as I could.
Mama mentioned an inheritance and her sister laughed.
“You don’t have to worry about it…when I die, it will be yours then,” Matilda said coughing. “Or what’s left of it…you got some water?” She took off her straw hat and placed it on the table in front her, wiping her small forehead.
Mama gave her another helping of hot stew. “But Tilda…my name was on it,” mama said adamantly. “You know how hard me and Clarence have it here in Richmond, huh?” mama whined. “Clarence ain’t been able to find work since he got back from Vietnam. Every day, the walls around us close in tighter and tighter,” she whimpered as she heaped more stew into the teeming bowl.
Matilda dropped her spoon. “You think $40,000 is going to fix all your problems, Eve?”
“It would help.”
“I don’t feel so good.”
“Have some more stew.”
“No, I need to lay down I think.”
“I think you need to eat a little more stew,” mama snickered.
Matilda looked up from her bowl that was filled to the brim with the brown broth and hunks of meat. She stared into mama’s eyes. Mr. Denson honked at me as he drove past our house. I stared at the big black garbage bag on the porch next to me. Matilda jumped up from the table vomiting, spilling the stew and knocking over the empty crystal goblet.
“Wait…Eve…what you doing,” she cried as she threw up on her brown tweed suit. “You…you brought me here to kill me? You wrote this letter…” she said pulling the wrinkled ivory envelope from her bosom. “You said to come…you said you love me now…you forgive me.”
“I lied,” mama replied calmly.
Matilda sweated and cried. “I never would have thought…” She cried holding her swelling throat, “Lord have mercy, you evil woman!” She searched for her bags and her broken down pumps. “Why?” she cried.
“I’m getting out of here,” she wailed as she hurried past the dining room wall, knocking pictures to the floor. “What was in there girl,” Matilda demanded.
Mama stood silently with the ladle in her hand as if she would serve Matilda another helping of soup.
Matilda bowed over in agony but erected herself and hurried to the table to retrieve her straw hat; and as she fell to the floor, clutching the table cloth, she begged for mercy. “Eve!”
Mama hurried to the kitchen a final time and returned to the table with an empty pickle jar. Methodically and carefully, she poured the rest of the soup in the jar and placed the jar in Matilda’s wrinkled grocery bag. She rushed back to the kitchen and scoured the black pot, wiping down the counter, sink and stove quickly and nervously.
I turned around, sinking to the porch— paralyzed with horror and disbelief. Claude Greene was on his way down our quiet cul-de-sac again. He saw me on our porch and he stopped running; he studied my face then turned back around and darted out of the neighborhood.