Cockscomb

Cicadas droned from the sycamore tree at the edge of the street. Farther away, up on Rosedale, an occasional automobile added its voice to the hum of white noise, and two little girls played in the glaring sunlight. They huddled at the edge of the sidewalk with the midday July heat rising around them. They were suntanned and barefoot in cotton shorts and crop tops, and their long hair hung down in tangled curtains that shaded the objects of their interest. The older child flipped back her dark hair and sat up. “Yours crawled up the drainpipe,” she announced.

The blonde one squinted up at her. “He’ll come back down,” she said, watching the other’s face for confirmation.

The older one pursed her lips. “I don’t think so.” Her eyes followed the invisible line of the drainpipe from its opening in the curb, beneath the square of lawn, to the edge of the house where it reappeared to climb the stone wall and join the rain gutter. She reached down and plucked a large yellow and black grasshopper, minus his hoppers, from the hole in the curb.

“C’mon, Lissa. We better catch you another one.”

The younger one, Lissa, nodded. She looked up at the roof sorrowfully, then suddenly her face brightened. “Look, there he is!”

“Where?”

“Right up there! Right on the edge of the roof!”

“Oh, I see him!”

Both girls pretended they saw the grasshopper crawling along the raingutter. They cheered him on and followed his imaginary progress across the front of the house to the television antenna.

“Oh, he’s climbing up the TV antenna, Linda. Oh, look! Look!”

They stood on the sidewalk pretending until they grew tired of it. Then Linda pointed to one of the flat stones on the corner of the house. The shape of the reddish stone suggested a profile: stubby nose, white splotch of an eye, gaping mouth and exaggeratedly tall forehead. “Look, there’s Frankenstein,” she said. The girls walked around the stone house picking out the familiar shapes they had identified the previous summer. There were no new ones, for the shapes were established. They were handed down as unwritten folklore from their mothers to their older siblings to them. This was part of their common history as cousins. When they had finished their circuit and secured the legend once again, they ran to the backyard to catch another grasshopper.

In the afternoon the girls were full of fried chicken and rice pudding and iced tea. They had planned to walk up to the five and dime store after lunch. That would have made the second time that day. But Mamaw refused, saying anything they wanted would still be there tomorrow. She obviously didn’t understand the urgency of the situation nor did she appear to care, and for this the girls were angry with her.

They were supposed to be napping under the evaporative cooler in the back bedroom, but instead they were in the kitchen filling mayonnaise jar lids with water for the grasshoppers.

“I don’t see why we can’t walk up there,” said Linda. “What difference does it make?”

“She just doesn’t understand,” agreed Lissa.

“Yeah. Hey, let’s ask again. Maybe she’ll change her mind.”

The two crept through the big swinging door from the kitchen into the dining room. The room was dark and musty from being closed off. Even in July this room was almost cool, a phenomenon that added to its mystique. The girls edged around the big table, careful not to bump anything. They had never sat at this table, even though they had eaten at their grandparent’s house many times. The dining room was used only twice a year: Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then only for grown-ups and teenagers. Linda and Lissa still ate at the breakfast table in the kitchen alcove with the other young cousins. They were waiting for promotion to the big table.

Beyond the dining room, in the same space really, was the living room where Mamaw was watching a soap opera. She was deaf so the volume on the television was cranked up. She sat with her back to them in a child’s brown wicker rocker. The rocker was pulled close to the television screen.

“You ask her,” whispered Lissa.

“Okay, but let’s wait for a commercial.”

They stood in one spot, shifting from one foot to the other while the soap opera dragged on. Tiny dust particles stirred by their movement swirled around them, illuminated in the bands of sunlight coming through the closed venetian blinds.

“What’s your favorite thing in here?” whispered Linda.

“I like the shell,”

Lissa pointed to a large conch shell sitting on top of the television. The opening of the shell had been carved into a stage with a hula scene. It was lighted from within by a pink Christmas bulb, and when the pink light was on it reflected off the pearly ridges of the shell behind the little hula dancers.

“I like the poodles,” whispered Linda.

The end tables on either side of the worn sofa were littered with knickknacks. Among these was a pair of white ceramic poodles whose fur tufts were rough and sharp to the touch.

“They’re pretty too,” said Lissa too loudly.

“Shhh! She’ll hear us!” warned Linda, but Mamaw didn’t stir.

The girls continued to wait for a commercial, considering that this small courtesy helped stack the odds in their favor. When the break came they eased around to the front of the rocker and Linda began to plead their case. But Mamaw would hardly let her finish before she shooed them away. When they were a safe distance from her, almost to the swinging door and out of earshot by their estimation and experience, Linda hissed “old meanie,” under her breath.

Their grandmother came alive in front of the blaring TV. “You girls better not ever let me hear you call me a name, do you hear me?” she screeched in her thin voice.

“Yes ma’am, yes ma’am,” they cried and scooted out the door.

In the late afternoon the girls’ grandparents went outside to tend to their yard. They each had their separate jobs to do. Dadaw watered all the flowerbeds and cut the grass. Twice a week he took the mechanical mower with its spinning scissory blades from the garage and ran it over the lawn. Mamaw took care of the hands-on work on the flowers — the flowers were hers. The girls followed Dadaw around the yard while he distributed relief from the harsh Texas sun through the heavy garden hose. He told them how important it was to give all the flowers a good soaking. “Mamaw just gives ‘em a drop or two and goes on,” he said. He showed them how all the plants were thriving under his generous hand.

Mamaw left a trail of dead grasshoppers. She stooped over from the waist, her knees unbent and her head low. She pulled from her flowerbeds everything that didn’t belong. This included weeds, bugs, and the cats that like to lie on the cool dirt and crushed her flowers.

“Shoo! Get away!” she cried as she grabbed for a leg or a tail with which to yank the stray from the bed. The experienced old toms stayed just beyond her reach, and over the course of the summer even the young cats wised up and darted ahead of her thin fingers.

She picked off grasshoppers with regularity and then placed them on the sidewalk and stepped on their heads, just the heads. Her aim was uncanny. This was the thrift of a country woman. She wasted nothing, not even the effort and mess to squash the whole bug.

Linda and Lissa walked along behind her giggling. They found plenty of comedy in her bent-double frame and hiked up skirt showing rolled-down stockings topped by folds of knee. Her broad hips gave a little shimmy every time she pulled a weed. They shook their heads dismally at the trail of little black and yellow corpses with tobacco juice leaking from their smashed heads. Such a waste of good grasshoppers.

Mamaw tried to educate them in the different flowers. She showed them the roses and the cannas, the marigolds and bachelor buttons, and the pansies and pepper plants along the edge of the driveway. The peppers were tiny black, red, yellow, and green balls — too hot to eat. They were the only plants that interested the girls because they fed the peppers to their grasshoppers.

“You girls don’t be pickin’ my peppers,” Mamaw called when they wandered off in that direction.

“We won’t!” they answered. They giggled and stuffed the picked ones into their pockets for later.

She showed them her cockscombs, which covered one bed with a thick velvet blanket, blood red. The girls wanted to touch the ruffled blooms with their hands, to know what all that crimson felt like.

“Don’t touch ‘em!” cried Mamaw when they reached down. “You’ll spoil the flowers”.

“Oh, just one,” begged Linda, “Just let us feel of this little one right here in the corner.”

“Yes, just that one,” agreed Lissa.

“Well, here.”

Mamaw held the flower away from the others while they ran their fingers over its stiff crinkled crest. She called the plants “coxacombs” and that’s what the girls called them too.

The sun went down but the heat of the day remained. The girls sat on the front porch with their grandparents drinking coke floats and rocking in high-backed pale green rockers. Dadaw had designed and built the rockers in his retirement. More than once he had explained to the girls in detail each of the challenges this accomplishment entailed. Mamaw’s rocker was a glider whose function resulted from an intricate network of wire and wood the girls could not comprehend.

Mamaw quickly finished her small portion of coke float in her daisy-stenciled juice glass. She rose and fussed with the purple-leafed Jew that poured from a pot on the porch’s wide concrete banister.

It was almost dusk but there was still enough light to see Ruby wander up the sidewalk. There was still enough light to see her clearly as she climbed the porch steps and plopped on the banister across from Dadaw.

“Got them two gels stayin’ wit’ cha, ah see.”

“Yes’m, and they’re mighty helpful too.”

“Go on now. Ah bet they’s more trouble than he’p.” She looked at the girls. “Ain’cha now?”

The girls returned her look from over the rims of their coke floats. Their eyes darted to Dadaw and back to Ruby but they did not answer.

Ruby shifted her flaccid body. She was barefoot and wore a dingy cotton sackdress. She gave off an odor that was foreign to the girls, and the toenails on her bare feet were thick and yellow. The girls watched her every move.

“Close your mouth, Melissa,” said Mamaw. “How would you like it if a bug flew in there?”

Lissa closed her mouth and looked wide-eyed at her grandmother.

“An’ how you doin’ this evenin’, Miz Stockman?” asked Ruby, shifting herself again.

“Very well.”

Mamaw regarded Ruby with the same tired contempt as the stray cats that Dadaw fed. She offered no promise of hospitality or friendship.

Dadaw asked Ruby about her father who lived with her in a little white frame house two doors up Avenue G toward Vaughn Street. Ruby told him all the latest. The infection in the old man’s foot was not any better, but in fact worse. “It’s that di’beeteez, ya know,” she said knowingly. Now the doctor planned to cut the foot off at the ankle.

Linda and Lissa glanced at each other. They were on the same wave length. ‘We know about this,’ they exchanged silently. ‘This is the scary gross foot story where the doctor first cut off a toe then all the toes then half the foot, and now this.’

“What does it look like?” Lissa had asked Dadaw.

“Just like a piece of sliced off meat,” was his answer.

Lissa imagined an old man with a raw beef roast sticking out from the stub of his foot.

Then Ruby told Dadaw about the new boyfriend she had acquired. “He treats me real nice,” she nodded at the truth in her statement. Ruby was a white woman, but her fleshy cheeks, like the rest of her, were coarse and dark. Her skin was one big brownish blotch, and her jowls undulated around every word.

The girls tried to imagine what this boyfriend looked like. They tried to imagine Ruby and him together on a date.

Then the slow night finally fell and it was fully dark, and Mamaw had already gone inside. Dadaw, Linda and Lissa sat on the front porch and watched for lightening bugs. Dadaw told them stories about his boyhood in the backwoods of Louisiana and his experiences as a section foreman on the T & P Railroad. They listened attentively, anticipating the good parts of each story. They knew all the stories by heart, but never tired of hearing them.

He finished talking and they sat in silence for awhile, the girls dreading the inevitable sigh and offhand observation that he “reckoned it was time to go in”. Then Dadaw pointed across the street to a light overhanging the desolate back entrance of a women’s clothing store that faced Rosedale.

“See that light yonder?” He leaned back in his rocker. “I know a secret about that light.” He began rocking again.

Linda and Lissa looked at each other, their imaginations sparking. Could there be yet another great mystery they had not heard? Would it be as good as the one about the house that once stood directly across the street where there was only an empty parking lot now? The one in which the only son had hanged himself in his bedroom when their mothers were still in high school?

Or would it be as frightening as the derelict graying two-story house on the corner, the one right next door to Ruby’s? That was the house, uninhabited for years, where their brothers had seen an eerie bluish light glowing in the upstairs window. The girl’s hearts quickened when they made themselves walk past that house.

“What is it, Dadaw?” Linda asked.

“Oh, I better not say. It might scare you girls.”

They assured him they would not be scared, but he shook his head. “No, no. Your Mamaw’d skin me alive if you ended up wantin’ to crawl in bed with us tonight. No, I shouldn’ta mentioned it.”

They wheedled and begged until finally he let them wear him down.

“Now you promise you won’t get scared?” he asked.

“Cross our heart, hope to die, stick a needle in our eye,” they chanted.

“And you won’t tell Mamaw I told you?”

“Nope, our secret,” promised Lissa.

“All right then.” He leaned forward, the rocker creaking under his weight. “That light—,” he paused for effect, “was there yesterday!” He winked and grinned.

The cousins had been had. They squealed with disappointment and delight.”

It was time to go inside and Mamaw had drawn their bath. She gave them a few scant inches of tepid water, not enough to play Dairy Queen and make suds parfaits. They griped about the situation but concluded it could not be helped.

“That’s just Mamaw,” they agreed with wisdom they had often heard from their mothers.

When it was bedtime and they were between the cool cotton sheets, they told each other scary stories. They talked and giggled. “You girls hush now and go to sleep!” Dadaw called.

They muffled guffaws at the hilarious sound of his voice.

They played a game of drawing pictures that had to be guessed on one another’s back. Both of them used to want to go first until they each figured out how much better it was to drift off to sleep with the other still drawing. This time they could not begin until they had played other tie-breaking games to see who got to go last.

Finally they fell asleep with the abandon of children. The spent day was not a fragment of a whole, but a whole unto itself. It was not a rung on a ladder toward any longed-for goal, but rather an end in itself: self-contained and self-fulfilling. The next would dawn independent of the last with nothing carried over (they would even get fresh grasshoppers). It would begin with white lines of sunshine through the blinds on the cotton bedspread. With the smell of bacon and biscuits cooking on top of the stove. With their grandparents’ morning routine. It would begin and end with no one giving any thought at all to how unique and precious it was.

 

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