Other People's Business, Red Hills Review, November 2004
“Crab feeds,” my sister announces. “Forty-five dollars a person, and all the crab you can eat. Vintage High School does it. It’s the most amazing thing. They bring buckets of crab, bowls of melted butter -- oh, God! My mouth melts just thinking about it! Don’t you want to go with me? Buckets and buckets of crab.”
“Joan, Mama’s sick. She needs to see you.”
“Let me finish. You’ll love this.” Her hands push the air apart to make room for the scene. “Picnic tables are set up on the soccer fields, and last weekend, this family came all dressed up. They brought candles, flutes for their champagne, a beautiful red table cloth. Isn’t that wonderful? Tell me you think it’s wonderful.”
She tips toward me like a baby bird chirping with hunger. What does she want from me? To tell her that I’ll go to some ridiculous crab feed? To tell her that our mother isn’t dying? To say, “Yes! It’s wonderful!”? She’s fifty-four years old, weighs ninety pounds, and babbles about pink feathered hats and Brad Pitt and crab feeds. Besides, the word ‘wonderful’ isn’t in my vocabulary when my mother’s laid up at the hospital, sick, but not sick enough not to know she’s going to die there.
“The crab feed tonight benefits the veteran’s home. It’s for a good cause.” Joan says this like a question -- she’s pleading now -- and I nibble on my cinnamon bread, longing for Doug to burst through the front door, reclaim her, take her away from my table.
But he’s not coming back. I found him in his kitchen last month, stubble on his chin, peeling a banana with delicate fingers. He’s got musician’s hands, I thought, mesmerized by the slow tearing of the yellow skin, strip by strip, as if he had all the time in the world. “I can’t do anything for Joan,” he said in a faint voice. “I’m not enough for her…I don’t know why.” Then he disappeared into his living room to eat the banana or to cry, or maybe because he didn’t want to see me or anything else close to Joan. His screen door whapped behind me, and I remembered how Mama laughed about Joan wailing with hunger in the middle of the night until she was four years old.
Funny, how I’d forgotten to tell him this. But even if it hadn’t slipped my mind I doubt I would have said anything. It wasn’t polite to tell other people their business, Mama always said. Or let them know yours. No, no, this world’s got enough to carry on its back without you girls harping on about your stuff.
I took everything Mama said to heart. But lately, this “stuff’ of mine has felt like a candy sucker swishing around in my mouth, flavor gone, hard as a bead, and it just won’t melt away. Seems like one day I’ll bite down and break a tooth.
I never told Joan I went to see him.
Her hands have returned to their contrite folded position on my kitchen table. They twitch when I say, “Mama’s in Intensive Care. You may not have another chance.”
I don’t say, “I won’t take no for an answer.”
I don’t say, “You’re being selfish.”
I don’t say, “You may not have another chance with me.”
“I told you,” she says. “I’m going to the crab feed tonight. I’ll see her another time.”
My chair screeches across the linoleum, and I swipe away her plate of cinnamon bread, even though I know she isn’t done. I’m cleaning up, clearing away, washing, drying, setting things right. As usual. That’s who I am: Alison Cohill, the younger sister who’ll go to the squeaky clean hospital tonight, make excuses for Joan, watch the pain crack through my mother’s face. And I’ll try to fix that, too.
I look out the window, onto an eight foot fence and spindly rosemary bush. It’s not polite to tell other people their business, but Mama, that doesn’t mean this world isn’t carrying it all the same.
The steaming hot water burns my hands as I rinse away Joan’s crumbs, dump what’s left of her snack into the garbage compacter, and grind it away. She doesn’t say a word.