A SHORT STORY
When our perils are past, shall our gratitude sleep? ~George Canning
ROSEMARY & TIME
Ellie Carr listened to the message on her answering machine, gently nudging her cat from her ankles. Her sister’s voice threw her, but the information was not unexpected. Mercy was dead.
The women in her father’s family lived a long time. They stormed past brothers, husbands, sons, and nephews into hardened old age. The men were dead before they reached the age of reduced subway fare and memory loss, before they knew what hit them. Forced off the land of the living by denial and fear, bothered to an early grave by the women who grew up with them, married them, or carried them in nine months of blissful unborn ignorance.
She flattened a ragged tear in an old snapshot and scrutinized the pictured gathering. A stranger might easily misinterpret the faded black-and-white photograph, scalloped-edged and reminiscent of a pre-digital era. Ellie recalled scenes along dimly lighted corridors in the Museum of Natural History; dioramas of Native American families seated around the fire, elders narrating ancestral tales, women tanning hides and stringing necklaces of oyster shells, while raven-haired children ran in naked pursuit of a mangy pup—just moments before the bloodshed.
She was 63 and maybe five or six years old in the photograph and nothing had changed. She was still the outsider. Ellie’s marriage had replenished the stale cup of familial dysfunction and she’d abandoned provincial disapproval from her own kind for the pretentious indifference of Park Avenue. Divorced at 30, she’d sworn off the diminishing returns of family affairs. Soon after her divorce had become final, her cousin Thomas had called out of the blue. She had just begun to breathe easier. It would be the last time she’d spend Thanksgiving with her family.
“Been a while El. I was thinkin’….” Please don’t let him say Thanksgiving, she’d prayed. The new answering machine was still a remote concept. Screening calls seemed somehow, dishonest. “Ellie? You there?” “Yep. Sorry, I’m here. You just caught–.” “Let’s do Thanksgiving. I know you’re probably busy.” She detected a whiff of sarcasm. “But c’mon hon, you know? Just like the old days. We’ll do it here!”
Just like the old days. That was before she’d married outside the tribe, when their close friendship was like balm on a wound and she called him Tom-Tom. ‘Here’ was doubtless a proud, down-at-heel Victorian among others of its kind in Plainville, New Jersey. A lopsided fixer-upper. “Who will be there?” she’d asked, regretting it immediately. But he took her question as an affirmation and reeled off the usual suspects. His mother—Ellie’s Aunt Mercy—and her sister, Aunt Violet. His brother David was coming, with Russell, of course. Thomas mentioned a few friends from the neighborhood who might drop by after dinner, names unfamiliar to her. “Not Nana,” he choked and they laughed conspiratorially, like old allies. “You think Uncle Will can make it?”
Nana Carr was in a nursing home on Staten Island then. At 90, she’d lost her intimidating girth but not her punishing reach. She’d chosen the residence for it’s hellish commute. Three eldest daughters—Flora, April and Jasmine—had fled far from harm’s way. Only Mercy, Violet, and Ellie’s father Will had remained.
Will was her youngest, a prematurely balding man of resigned posture and a submissive nature, so unlike his five strapping sisters. He made the crushing journey every month, kept his head low for a couple of hours of a xenophobic harangue aimed at the staff and her bitter disappointment with men, all men. He could, as he’d often said, make the journey blindfolded. He often made the return trip blind. He’d scope out the necessary watering holes: the deli at the bus stop for a tallboy of Rheingold concealed in a brown paper bag and the ludicrous straw; a spot at the snack counter on the ferry, wolfing a pretzel the size of an inner tube. He washed that down with a couple more beers as he searched for the Statue of Liberty with a rueful heart. The real return on his good deed was found in Dave’s Tavern on Ninth Avenue where he rushed through a supper of peanuts and a hard-boiled egg crusted with salt. This necessitated a boilermaker or two before he managed the few hazy steps to Port Authority.
Family gatherings were a regular affair when Ellie was a kid. For summer holidays they converged on the picnic grounds of a little park a few short blocks from her cousins’ home in Cranberry, New Jersey. Theirs was a conventional gray and white clapboard Colonial with a deep porch fronting the three-story house. Pink and white begonias trailed from hanging baskets. Beneath the porch, at the top of an unexcessive stretch of lawn, popcorn balls of pastel-colored hydrangeas bloomed. A bulky mutt named Skippy had to be prodded from the porch swing. Clean, empty milk bottles waited at the front door—it was everything Ellie’s childhood of public housing on the lower east side of Manhattan was not.
A dry piney odor, like an undertow, took her back. She remembered the sharp, intrusive twang of lighter fluid in her nostrils before smelling the sweet smoky charcoal that promised hot dogs and hamburgers and corn on the cob, almost always forgotten until the foil was charred and impossible to scrape from desiccated kernels. Ellie ran in a panic from the odious toilets, rank smelling and live-wired with the treacherous buzz of wasps.
Thomas’s brother David was five years older than Ellie and Thomas and for a time seemed unable to keep up with the speed of his growth. As a teen he sweetened his grandmother’s sour nature with music. Cousin David’s crew cut bobbed and his fingers flew up and down a bulky accordion as he swayed in too-short chinos to the bubbly dance tunes he’d taught himself to play watching the Lawrence Welk Show. Nana Carr patted tight spirals of a fresh perm and hummed as she drowned bees in soda pop bottles, never taking her eye off the park’s perimeter for the unwelcome arrival of the family who would upset a neutral balance with their darker skins.
Ellie remembered little of their grandmother’s companion. ‘Uncle’ John was a red-faced, genial man who kept out of Nana’s way and made himself useful by falling asleep under a tree. Ellie and Thomas never knew their grandfather. David barely remembered him. Nobody spoke of him. Her father Will and her Uncle David pitched softball with Aunt Violet’s husband Joe. With the classic ease of film stars, they slouched in joking conversation, cracked leather mitt on one hand, and an unfiltered cigarette in the other. They tossed the ball lazily and Ellie couldn’t take her eyes off them. They were men who had fought wars. When Uncle David mindlessly rolled his shirtsleeve above an anchor tattooed on his bicep, Ellie thrilled. He had a butcher shop in Union. Her dad and Uncle Joe had secrets.
Late afternoon, when darkened trees split the sunlight that stretched like claw marks across the grass, ice cubes rattled in Uncle Joe’s big red metal cooler. Aunt Mercy and her sister Vi smoothed their modest cotton dresses and directed frosty glances at their husbands digging for cold beers, momentarily turning their attention from Ellen, Ellie’s flirtatious mother who laughed loudly and dressed in a midriff-baring halter and clingy pedal pushers. Ellie and Tom-Tom made for the bleachers, where they commandeered their pirate ship, or reinvented it as a fortress, or lay upon the wooden planks at the edge of the softball field pondering their future. They would never marry. Ever.
Neither of Ellie’s cousins could bat or throw a ball. Those were the early signs, at least according to Ellie’s father. Ellie knew from the time of her uncle’s death when she was twelve that those fatherless boys were gay. It was the singular connection she had with both of them.
“Um….” Thomas hesitated. “I’m thinking, maybe Annie?” In the right mood, Annie had a glorious laugh, like a giddy chorus of clowns shot from a circus cannon. But Ellie’s younger sister was a minefield. It sometimes happened that her laugh, her infectious giggle, seduced you. Then it was best to proceed with extreme caution. She was two years younger than Ellie. Annie’s button nose and tiny frame grew into a perpetual sneer on a torturously thin body. When she was little, her pinchable cheeks and her sorrowful eyes begged you to pick her up for a cuddle. But then you did and it was like she’d burst into flame and she’d scream to be put down. She stormed from the picnic table and circled the park again and again. Her reedy legs worked furiously, in sync with balled fists pumped in rage. Someone caught sight of her ponytail and laughter erupted. The grownups placed bets on her endurance.
Thomas suggested Ellie make the call. “Sure, why not?” Ellie hadn’t seen her sister in a while and only vaguely recalled her last tirade, something about her job, how jealous her coworkers were. She could hardly blame her cousin’s reticence, just as she could not resist his exuberance. Thomas was coming to conclusions, wrapping things up. She did not know that then. Thanksgiving. Why not? “Let’s do it!” she’d cried.
Ellie spotted him from the back of a taxi on that leaden November morning. She saw Thomas was just ahead, his lanky figure almost gaunt, hunched under an umbrella in the pearl-colored sleet. He waved the driver to the curb. In his shirtsleeves he seemed not to notice the cold and grabbed her bags.
Behind him rose a stately old Victorian, more down at heel than the others. It was grand, though. Settled by Quakers, Plainville’s dilapidated homes came to be discovered by esthete young men who commuted to graphic design jobs in Manhattan; and in the evenings reared archly above renovated marble mantelpieces, very dry martini in hand. They decorated their homes with the spirited vengeance of the repressed. On weekends they left no curio unturned and scoured flea markets in New Jersey and neighboring Pennsylvania for the missing pieces.
Ellie had been missing her cousin. Rid of the husband who’d caused Thomas to accuse her of betrayal, she felt it was a good idea to reconnect. It might be fun. It might be healing. Just as she knew Thomas and his friend Tony—as the rest of the family referred to her cousin’s lover—would restore the aged beauty’s lackluster complexion and shore up its creaking interior. And then they would move on and rescue another architectural stray. They were the anomaly, native New Jerseyans who worked from their garage, restoring furniture, re-wiring lamps, mending crockery. They had no inclination to go anywhere else, and would make do until they opened their own shop.
Ellie grabbed a scarred column at the top of the steps to a wrap around porch. She flicked white paint specks from her hand. Gallon cans of Billiard Green stood beside the front door. Thomas kissed her cheek. She smelled alcohol, cigarettes and neglected teeth. “Sorry I couldn’t pick you up, hon. Tony’s frantic.” He shoved a can with his foot. “This’ll have to go in the garage.”
She followed him into the house. Her cousin’s long-limbed desultory lope contrasted with Tony’s squat, smoldering jab at life. The Carr’s were light haired, square-jawed Germans. They were mostly escapees from Lutheranism into Born Again Christian Fundamentalists. Ellie’s family was the exception. Even relaxed, the women looked angry, mouths set in stern recognition of their plight. Her cousin was a benign pot-smoker who had never left his hippie comfort zone, replete with stoner accoutrements. His thinning hair collected at the back of his neck in a lank ponytail. He doused his mother’s religious fervor with alcohol and more pot.
There was a monastic guest room, which was always referred to as Tony’s room. Tony was Italian, a lapsed Catholic, with a wellspring of jokes that left no race, gender, or creed unscathed. Ellie had found that disturbing at first and then hateful. She remembered why she had avoided these occasions. Nobody mentioned the queen-sized waterbed in the master bedroom. Apart from Ellie, they remained closeted within their families.
At ten in the morning the house was redolent with wet plaster, cigarettes, and roasting turkey. Ellie suspected this would be the only bit of the meal that would not come out of a can or a box. Tony was the cook, though they joked privately that Thomas was ‘the wife.’ Tony’s reputation had reached legendary proportions. Ellie thought it more apt to call his idea of a dinner party ‘legendary portions.’ Everything was huge: bowls of overdone spaghetti, vats of tomato sauce, and rubbery loaves of defrosted garlic bread. There was always lots and lots of cheap Chianti dispensed from a box. He never bothered to disguise the jars and the packaging and Ellie marveled at his shameless acceptance of the accolades.
Tony appeared, clutching a weighty cut glass goblet of tomato juice. He eyed her deep-pleated men’s trousers, baggy wool cardigan, and the vintage vest she wore over a voluminous, white long-sleeved shirt. He saw the floppy gray felt hat and the necktie beneath. “Annie,” he bellowed. “Um, it’s El? Remember?” She removed her hat revealing a soft knot of light brown hair. “Annie Hall! This what they’re wearing in the big city nowadays?” Ellie laughed, “You like?” and followed him into the kitchen.
Ellie spotted the unsuspecting sweet potatoes on the counter. Soon enough they would be boiled to a lifeless mash and suffocated under a puffy quilt of miniature marshmallows. “Ellie brought some stuff, Tone.” Tony eyed the shopping bag warily. “From the Farmer’s Market,” Ellie cheered. She ticked off the contents: fresh spinach—lots of it—garlic, rosemary, and pignolis. Ignoring Tony’s scowl, she showed him the label. “These are pine nuts.” Before Tony could insist—he’d take care of everything—Thomas assured him, “She’ll prepare it.” They shuffled uncomfortably in the cluttered kitchen like manacled pachyderms until Thomas suggested, “Have a Bloody Mary, El. He’s just made a fresh batch.”
By mid day the rest of the family had turned up as if for a wake, laden with offerings but unsure of their motives. Aunt Violet brought pies from the Pie Factory. Annie blew in bitching about the traffic from Hartford and the incredible dessert she’d made but, “It got ruined in the car so I just chucked it at a rest stop.” Aunt Mercy had her bible. Cousin David and Russell were the last to arrive. Identically dressed in ill-fitting dark blazers they looked comically unaware. Ellie had been to their outrageous parties in a reconverted warehouse in Greenwich Village and had seen them in their leathery best. Russell earned the big money but Aunt Mercy understood it was her son, the teacher, whose name was on the lease. They also had a second bedroom. Russell presented a bottle of rosé. “We had it at a party last week. It’s the rage.” It’s in a real bottle, thought Ellie.
Uncle Joe was dead. Her father Will, long since divorced, was drinking himself along the same bottom line in Hartford. Annie’s 7-year-old son, El’s nephew Garret, had been placed in his father’s custody. It was off limits to ask about him and it broke Ellie’s heart.
Her sister stepped back for the expected once-over and smirked with disapproval. “Who are you s’posed to be, El? What’s-her-name, that actress?” Ellie knew Annie was disappointed. Impossibly thin in a black ankle-length wool skirt and black turtleneck sweater, Annie thumbed a strand of pearls and stared vacantly at Ellie. “Well, maybe,” Ellie replied, but she liked Diane Keaton’s look. It was comfortable and she loved hunting through the thrift shops. Annie was practiced at the art of distraction; inspecting her manicure or an invisible bit of lint on her sweater and all the while making note of her older sister’s outfit; one which she would replicate by their next meeting. And be disappointed, again. “It’s stupid,” she snipped.
Aunt Mercy inquired after her father; was he all right, only? “Only what? Your brother, Aunt Mercy, you should call him.” Her aunt clasped her hands, shaking her head. “You have to learn generosity of spirit, Ellen.” No one ever called her Ellen. Aunt Vi had cornered David. She cupped her glass, relating the story she’d just heard from Annie, how Will’s drinking was getting out of hand. “Fell down in the street! Can you imagine?” David cleared his throat sympathetically. Russell sank before the TV into the claret-colored velvet sofa after raising the volume on the football game. Ellie slumped next to him. “You hate sports.” He raised his glass to hers. “No I don’t,” he answered definitively, “I love them.” Tony darted among them. “Who needs a refill?”
They stood around the oval mahogany table covered with a vintage lace medallion tablecloth. On it sat an obscenely large turkey alongside bowls of oatmeal-colored stuffing, shrunken heads of pale Brussels sprouts and doughy rectangles of biscuits. Canned cranberry sauce shimmered like a blood clot. Elaborate crystal decanters filled with ruby-colored Chianti shone like beacons from the center of the table. Mercy called for heads bowed. She prayed. Ellie raised her head, partly in defiance. Mercy’s eyes were closed, her assertive chin tilted upwards, her palms open and extended before her. Ellie expected the usual grace, giving thanks for what we are about to…, but her aunt’s sermon caught her off guard. “Our president who has allowed the devil into the White House, guide him O Lord.” Ellie shifted uncomfortably and looked around. Our who? Jimmy Carter? She expected to signal Thomas but his chin dug tightly against his chest, and his hands gripped the chair before him. Mercy sang out: “Help us in our fight to take back the souls of our children. Keep them from the devil who would lead them into darkness, away from your teachings.” Ellie dropped her head and chewed her lip, fearful for her restraint. When Mercy thanked the Lord for Ellen’s return to them Ellie seized up. When Mercy requested that they sit while she read a passage from her bible, she wiped her sweating palms on her lap. Before her aunt put her bible aside, Ellie lunged for the nearest decanter.
“What’s this?” Annie hoisted a platter, sniffing the spinach. “What are these?”
“It’s a recipe I thought—,” Ellie offered.
“Those are nuts.” Tony shrieked. “Pigwhatsis. El? Weird, huh?” Vi piped in: “Ellie always has to be different, like her mo—.” Mercy shot her sister a warning look but Violet was undeterred. “What? What did I say? She’s just like her mother. Ellen was always, she had to be different, you know?”
Annie put the platter down, untouched. “It smells weird.” Ellie spooned a vivid green heap onto her own plate. “That’s fresh rosemary. Not that you’d know.”
“Speaking of pigs, there was this rabbi….” Tony launched into a rapid-fire round of coarse jokes. Annie’s shrill laughter rose above the others and continued throughout the meal, louder with every joke and every glass of wine. Ellie rose and began gathering dishes, halting Tony’s schtick. “Uh, oh,” he whispered, “Ellie doesn’t approve.” She had drunk too much and steadied herself before she spoke. “I think it’s not only are these jokes racist, they suck as jokes, not even funny. I don’t know what you all are laughing about.”
“You’re not a, you’re not still Jewish, are you El?” Ellie stopped on her way to the kitchen with the nearly full platter of spinach and glared at her sister. “I never was Jewish. Whatever are you going on about?” Violet, too, had imbibed, ignoring Mercy’s disgust. “You married that, that Jewish man. That means you are, too.”
Thomas joined Ellie in the kitchen where she’d plunged her hands into soapy hot water. “You’re too sensitive, El.” He picked up a dish and began drying. “Too sensitive?” she cried. “I don’t get it Thomas. You don’t even flinch when he tells fag jokes.” Aunt Mercy appeared in the doorway. “Thomas, your friends have arrived. Is everything all right?” He threw down the towel and hurried past his mother. “Ellen, you seem lost. It might help if you sought counsel in—?” She smiled like a dog; lips pulled back, teeth bared. “In what?” Ellie scraped the sodden heap of spinach into the trash. “In your fucked up world? No, Aunt Mercy, everything is not all right.” Mercy stiffened. “Okay Ellen, I’ll leave you to….” Ellie glared at her. “Don’t call me Ellen. No one calls me that.” Her Aunt turned back to her. Mercy’s eyes narrowed as if on a target. “We’re not having this conversation.”
Ellie headed for the back stairs, her face burning from alcohol and indignation. Annie was buttoning her coat, furious. “You always fuck things up, you know that?” “And you’re always leaving,” Ellie shot back. She skirted around buckets and paint cans, tripping over paint-spattered tarps covering the floor of the narrow hallway. The doorway of the master bedroom at the top of the stairs was sealed with a thick plastic curtain that she pulled aside. Soon Thomas was seated beside her on the waterbed, and they rocked together as she sobbed. He could stand it, he said, because he had to, because the alternative was worse. If he came out to his mother she would not stop until she’d defeated the devil. “My brother and Russell take her to plays in the city, you know, the opera, museums. They spoil her with nice restaurants. She doesn’t want to lose that.” They sat in silence until Thomas rose and opened a window. “Annie’s gone.” Ellie bounced up, took the joint he offered, and inhaled deeply.
With the arrival of her cousin’s friends the party heated up, a lively second act. The dolorous aftermath of the meal was trampled under the husky tones of Donna Summer and they were all feeling love again. Apart from one of the guests, Ellie was sure they were all gay. Ellie swooned into drunken conversation with the young man. He was Italian, cute in a muscle-bound kind of way and he smelled like cheap cologne. She teased, “What are you doing with this bunch?” He laughed. “You’re the cousin I heard about? The one from the city?” He watched as the soft knot atop her head came undone. Her hair fell to her shoulders in relaxed waves. He was easily ten years younger than her and immediately smitten. “I live up the street. These guys are the most fun to be around.” Ellie grinned. “I’m fun to be around,” she whispered into his neck. Aunt Mercy stood before them, hands on hips. “Pie?”
David and Russell prepared to leave, and encouraged Ellie to leave with them. “You can sleep on the bus,” David urged. “We’ll get you a cab back from Port Authority to your place.” “No, I’m staying.” Ellie grabbed Tony’s arm. “He’s been good enough to give up his room, haven’t you Tone?” “It’s okay,” David said, and Ellie replied, “Yeah. It’s okay. It’s all okay.” She kissed them in turn and cried, “Turn it up! Let’s dance!” Aunt Mercy replaced her apron with her coat and Ellie watched as she bundled Violet through the front door.
She woke to the sharp attack of a chisel refashioning her brain. It was short-lived relief to discover she was alone in the little bed. She’d dress, call a taxi, and sneak out before they woke. Fragments of the evening broke through the painful aftershocks. She had been the life of the party; danced as if her life depended on it. His name was Sal and his dream was to someday open a pizza parlor in Atlantic City. She buried her face in her hands, and nearly gagged from the smell of cologne.
Mercy stood at the foot of the stairs, dishtowel in hand. “He’s left already,” she announced dryly.” Ellie slumped on the stair. “How come you’re…? “I thought the boys would need help cleaning up. I got here as that young man was leaving.” She studied her niece. “El, you need to—?” Ellie exploded: “To what!” She started down the stairs. “I know, I know, I ruined everything.” Mercy pulled a small package from the pocket of her apron. “You need to take these back.” She handed her the pignolis, and a fringe of rosemary. “That dish was awful. Nearly ruined Tony’s dinner.”
Ellie listened to the message again before she erased it. She had not spoken to her sister in years. Mercy was dead. Her sons had died years ago, Thomas not long after that Thanksgiving. David and Russell died in the late 80s from a scourge as deadly as their mother’s intolerance. Before Violet died last year she told Ellie that Uncle Joe had fathered a child during the war when he was stationed in Italy. In the days following her father’s death, when she searched through his meager belongings, she came across photos of her father and another young man. They were in their Coast Guard whites, embracing. Scrawled on the back of one the message: “Your buddy always, Stan.”
Soon she would retire from her job. Instead of editing other’s stories she might write her own. She lived a contented life alone with her cat. She had booked a flight to Paris in a few days. Her dinner was nearly done. She smelled the roasting potatoes and the fragrant scent of rosemary.
Always in my heart.
ROSEMARY & TIME is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work.
© June 2010
© June 2010