"Silver Queen", a story by Miriam N. Kotzin.
When she was far too young to understand, she overheard her momma talking
about a mistake. She knew it was something she wasn't supposed to know
because Momma and Aunt Lou kept glancing over at her, but never once did
either of them call her name until they'd drunk all the coffee, pouring from
the bottle on the table.
Then it was "Cora Mae, honey," Momma said, "take a dollar from the sugar
bowl and run to the store to get Momma a pack of Luckies. Ask Uncle Bill to
dip you an ice cream, any flavor you want. Then you come straight home,
hear?" That's how long ago this happened.
"An'tLou," Cora Mae said, "you want somethin'?"
"No, Sugar," she said, "Just a big ole hug."
She reached down and wrapped her arms around the girl. Aunt Lou was soft as
a marshmallow and smelled like sugar and jasmine and coffee and bourbon, she
did, and each and every time she hugged her it felt to Cora Mae like Aunt
Lou was afraid it was the last, and she wanted to remember it for always and
When Cora Mae had let the screen door slam, she hung back long enough to
hear Momma ask, "What you gonna do, Loulie?" And Cora Mae thought she'd go
for the Luckies and ice cream after. She didn't know after what, just that
there'd be something next, and she didn¹t want to miss it. Cora Mae'd only
heard Momma call out "Loulie" once, when Aunt Lou¹s cat Sweetie-kitty had
got herself treed, and Aunt Lou was crying like all get out until Pete, who
everyone said was sweet on her, came with a great big wood ladder and
propped it up against a fat branch and got the cat down wrapped in a pink
bath towel so it wouldn't scratch and handed Sweetie-kitty to Aunt Lou who
held her like a baby-doll.
And Pete, he told her she looked real pretty like that, and she'd make some
man a good wife, and whoever he was he'd be right lucky to have her. And
then Aunt Lou dropped the towel with the cat in it like she never cared a
lick about Sweetie-kitty at all. And Sweetie-kitty was so surprised hitting
the ground sudden, she ran through the hole in the lattice work under the
porch and stayed there all night. And Aunt Lou went into the house with the
pink towel left in a heap on the lawn and she didn't come out neither.
"What can I do?" she said. Her arms made a circle on the table, and she put
her head down on her arms the way her first-graders did when they had their
five-minute rest mid-morning while she played a 78 on her record player so
they would have magic dreams though they weren't really expected to sleep at
all. And when Aunt Lou lifted her head, Cora Mae couldn't see her face, and
she was afraid to mash up against the screen and be caught listening. Cora
Mae couldn't call her Aunt Lou in class, and was supposed to call her Miz
Taylor, and that never could come out of her mouth right so she didn't call
her by name at all. It didn't matter none. Everyone knew what they were to
one another anyhow.
Momma scraped her chair back from the table and left the kitchen without
saying a word. Cora Mae scrinched herself over to one side of the door so
that she'd be more a shadow than anything if Momma glanced that way. Of
course, if she went to the door, she'd be caught where she shouldn't be.
Momma was gone a long time, and all the while she was gone, Aunt Lou sat in
that chair, her back as straight as Cora Mae had to sit on the piano bench
when Miz Barlowe was teaching her posture. And Aunt Lou sat perfectly still
though Cora Mae thought that she could see her shoulders go up and down real
slow. Sometimes she'd say to her class, "breathe in, breathe out, breathe,"
and she'd pause,"breathe," another pause, "breathe." It was like breathing
was something you had to think about and not something natural at all. And
that's how she looked now, from the back, as though she was thinking about
Cora Mae knew it wasn't right to spy on kin, but she didn't mind doing some
things that weren't right. She'd devil her Momma and devil her again by not
seeming sorry for it. She wanted to rush in and give Aunt Lou a hug just as
big and soft and sweet as the hugs Aunt Lou gave her, but she knew if she
did she wouldn't find out. She knew it was something secret. Momma had that
same sound in her voice she got with Poppa right after he got laid off.
She could run to the store and then run home if she had to. Run all the
way. When Momma came back into the kitchen she had a square of white paper
in her hand. She didn't say anything. She just put it on the table and
pushed it over to where Aunt Lou was sitting.
Aunt Lou didn't pick it up. Not for a long time. Then Momma said, "You got
to do something."
And Aunt Lou's shoulders they kept going up and down just as smooth and slow
as you please, like she was still coaching herself on how to breathe. And
Momma said, "Well, you got to, don't you?"
She waited a long time but it was like her words went up in the air and got
stuck on the strip of fly-paper hanging in a big curl over the table, and
may be Aunt Lou couldn't hear them because Momma's words were caught up
there with all the big fat black houseflies. No matter how often Daddy cut
down the paper and pulled a new curl free, there'd be flies. But if Cora
Mae could hear, so could Aunt Lou so that wasn't why she didn't answer.
"You can't just go away this time. You know you can't." Momma sounded like
she was in trouble and not Aunt Lou. Cora Mae wondered why she was so upset
that Aunt Lou wouldn't take up the paper she'd brought. It wasn't that hard
to carry a piece of paper from one room to the next, and Momma was acting
like she'd brought in something heavy or a big chunk of gold and diamonds
and Aunt Lou wasn't being proper grateful.
"Suppose —" Aunt Lou said. And then she didn't say anything else.
"What, Louise, suppose what?" Until right then Cora Mae had never heard her
Momma say Louise. It was like she was talking to a person she didn't know,
and, as much she did know her, she didn't like her. Worse, she didn't mind
none if she knew she didn't like her neither.
"You've got Cora Mae," Aunt Lou said real slow, her voice matching Momma's.
Then they sat like they were playing statues and Cora Mae had missed the
start of the game where the rules got set out, but all of them knew whoever
moved first would lose, and they were both waiting for the music to start to
break the spell. They went a long time like that. Momma had a fan on the
counter and it turned to the left and to the right and picked up Momma¹s
hair from her neck and then Aunt Lou's. It swept the table and the white
square would lift up a bit and set right back down like it couldn't make up
its mind whether to stay there or sail off where it couldn't cause no more
trouble between them.
"You'll lose your job for sure."
"It's not supposed to happen like this," Aunt Lou said.
"What were you thinking?" Momma asked. And then she started to cry.
"What'll happen to Cora Mae? How could you?"
What did this have to do with her?
"It wasn't supposed to," Aunt Lou said. She picked up the square of paper
and folded it in fours, running her thumbnail down the creases to make them
sharp and pushed the paper into her pocket. "I'll think about it."
"You have enough?" Momma asked.
Aunt Lou laughed like Momma told a joke on her, and she didn't like it.
"What I need," she said, "what I need."
And then Cora Mae knew that she'd have to story if she didn't run to the
store right then and get home with the Luckies.
And when she came home Momma and Aunt Lou were sitting across from one
another at the picnic table with a newspaper spread out and pile of corn
husks and ears of sweet corn Aunt Lou had pulled that morning. And Cora Mae
gave Momma the Luckies and the change, and neither woman thought to ask her
about the ice cream or why she was out of breath. Aunt Lou patted the bench
beside her for Cora Mae to sit down. And Aunt Lou showed her again the
right way to husk corn and get off all the silk. It was good corn, with the
rows all even and not squiggly. Silver Queen, she called it. Something
new. And the summer went on, and then the fall and it all seemed just the
way it had always been, and if you'd have asked the sisters they would have
smiled and said, yes, thank you, they had what they needed, they had enough.
And so they did.
Miriam N. Kotzin's stories, "A Virtually True Account of How Wallace Stevens Wrote Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" and "Beauty Cannot Keep" have appeared in previous issues of Offcourse.
Her fiction and poetry has appeared widely online and in print, including, among others Of(f)course, Slow Trains, Boulevard, Eclectica, Carve, The Pedestal, Southern Hum, Ghoti, Three Candles and Thieves Jargon and is forthcoming in Literary Mama and Absinthe Literary Review. Her work has received three Pushcart Prize nominations and was one of the notable stories of 2005. She is a co-founding editor of Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.
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