Mama’s hands were clasped together as if in prayer. Whether she were saying Grace or praying to get through the night without suffering another beating, I had no idea. My kid brother was eager to get on with his meal. Cornbread, a little steak and beans. At my appearance, Johnny posed the question of Blue’s whereabouts. Sick at heart, I was unable to look at him, not knowing if the dog were dead or alive. I still pictured the way he’d lain so still after his small body had connected with Trenchard’s boot.
“If you mean that stupid critter, boy, he’s out in the barn where he’s meant to be,” Trenchard told him. “And not at the dinner table.”
“But he always eats with us,” my brother protested. He was halfway out of his chair, when Mama lay a restraining hand on his.
“Please, John, don’t antagonise your father,” she said. Her head was bowed, and she barely glanced at me. “I’m sure Blue is fine.” Her lowered gaze was retained on her food and she failed to glance at her husband.
“So what culinary repast have you fixed tonight, Hannah?” The sarcasm in his words slammed through me, further conducive to nurturing the inherent loathing for this man. But Mama, as if she could read my thoughts, had a warning look on her face. Her face was pale, her eyes washed out as if she hadn’t slept in awhile. I knew we, I mean I, had to do something. But what? Trenchard had stripped to his shirtsleeves, revealing the arm bands displayed to his elbows.
“It’s just a little steak, Isaac. That’s all I could afford,” Mama dared. Still her eyes remained downcast when this man stamped to his feet, almost unsettling his chair. “Just a little steak, Isaac!” he derided, slamming a bunched fist down so violently that the plates shook, as if there was an earthquake, when he mocked her voice so simperingly.
“It’s fine, Mama,” I said. ” What your’s like, Johnny?”
Johnny’s eyes rounded beneath his curly forelock. He sported the look of wishing the floor would open at being included in the conversation.
“It’s fine.” He shrugged. “I want to know if Blue is okay. He ain’t come whining at the door like he usually does.”
“Stop talking about that damned mutt!” Trenchard rasped. “And if you leave this table, boy, I’ll strap you to it until you’ve learned some manners. John Franklyn got a damned lot to answer for, Hannah. Not discipling those boys. I caught Luke with that trollop from town, what’s her name? Rebecca.”
“She’s not a trollop. I…I like her, that’s all.” I wondered if he’d pick up on my hesitation. Because I really wanted to say I love her, but not in front of him, and risk his derision that I might love a girl.
It was on the tip of my tongue to mention that which was uppermost in our mind. The money for Mama to have a much needed op. The crunch of a vehicle skidding to a halt outside managed to shelve it temporarily. Our sister Lorrie jumped out of Billy Parker’s pick-up, as if she weren’t expecting a child. I saw Mama’s eyes light up. Trenchard visibly stiffened, when she breezed into the room.
I heard him mutter something about her being another trollop getting herself ‘in that way’ out of wedlock. Billy and me had been friends through school. He’d started dating my sister and they’d moved into together. The place was a grubby apartment close to town. But I couldn’t fail to envy her. A fine house was nothing if you weren’t happy. Judging by the beaming inflection of smiles on my sister’s face, she was happy enough. While the small bump of Billy Parker’s child was already beginning to show.
“We are having our evening meal and don’t wish to be interrupted.” Trenchard sat, returning to his seat, his tone imperious.
“Hullo, boys, and Mama,” Lorrie greeted, as if he hadn’t spoken. Throwing an arm around Mama, she kissed her cheek.
“Why don’t you eat with us? I’m sure there’s plenty to go around,” Mama said. As if she entertained a small burst of bravado in her daughter’s presence. Lorraine was strong. Maybe stronger than any of us. At least enough to escape.
Trenchard surprised us however, at being rendered speechless for once. Though his face perfected an adequate impression of a thundercloud.
“That’s okay, only if you’ve got enough to go round.”
“You can have mine, Sis,” Johnny passed his half eaten meal across the table. “I can’t eat until I know Blue’s alright.”
Lorrie looked at me for explanation, but I felt much too guilty. I toyed with my food as my brother had done, because I kept seeing the little dog being kicked across the straw, in my mind’s eye.
“For Heavens sake, I’m sure the dog is fine,” Trenchard wore a guilty expression when Lorrie flared him one of her withering glances.
Taking her place next to me at the table, Lorrie said, “You know the reason why I’m here, Mama.”
“Because that Parker boy has thrown you out,” Trenchard retorted.
“No, he hasn’t thrown me out.” Lorrie was on the defensive immediately. She ignored him and turned back to Mama, sitting there as frozen as she’d done in Graveley’s surgery, she wanted to know how it had gone at the doctor’s. “Is everything okay? What did he say?”
Neither of us dared to look at Trenchard. I knew that Mama hadn’t told him.
“It was fine, just fine.” Mama said, flicking her a wan smile.
“What was fine? What are you talking about?” Couldn’t that man speak quietly. Did he have to shout? There was Mama being brave and lying to her children. Johnny didn’t know anything either, and regarded both me and Mama for an explanation.
“No everything wasn’t fine,” I said. Regardless of Trenchard’s scornful expression I was on my feet.
“What do you mean, Luke?” Lorrie’s face was ashen, and a hand ran trembling to her mouth.
I told her what Doc Graveley had said, about Mama having an op. How the cancer was in the early stage, but that she had a good chance of recovery if she were treated at the Westchester Hospital in Nashville soon enough.
“Oh Mama.” Tears sprang to Lorrie’s eyes.
“It means that Mama needs five hundred dollars for the treatment,” I told her. “With the stay in hospital and future treatments and stuff…” I had, unconsciously directed the words at Trenchard.
“So what you looking at me for, boy? You’re not suggesting I stump up money for that are you?” His very speech rang with derision and disgust. “Everyone knows there’s no cure for that disease.”
The cold look in those glacial grey eyes when he regarded Mama, his own wife, was not even of surprise as if he might have known. They were filled with a barely concealed disdain. “I’m sorry, but if you want to throw good money after bad, then you find five hundred dollars for… for this.” A bony hand swept the room indiscriminately, “Beg, borrow, steal, I don’t fucking care. No matter what the doctors say, there’s no cure.” Rising to his feet once more, Trenchard shrugged into his fine linen jacket.
“That’s our Mama,” Lorrie’s eyes blazed in her temper. “I know you’ve got the money to pay for this op. She’s your wife, goddamit.”
“Lorrie, please,” Mama said, her voice shaking, I knew she was close to tears. Yet still so wonderfully proud. She had married this man for better or worse. She never stood up to him. Even when he returned home drunk on occasions and nigh on raped her. Yet still she never brought herself to retaliate, Now when she needed her husband, he was intent on turning his back on her. Declaring that he was going for a drink. To get away from sick women and useless sons.
“And you…” The yellow smoke digit zeroed in on Lorrie. “I hope that Parker boy got the money to support you when his bastard comes, because there is no home for you here, not with that…” The cold finger pointed at the small lump beginning to show in my sister’s stomach. “Because that boy will be gone like a shot when its born, you mark my words.”
“Well, Billy aint’ like that,” Lorrie spat, a fiery vixen. That said, she didn’t care a fuck what Trenchard thought. “And you got the money for Mama’s op, and that pittance you give her. Look at this food. I’m sorry, Mama, but you deserve better.” I was growing real scared for my sister and Johnny’s face was whiter than chalk. Mama whispered to her to hush up, but Lorrie no longer cared it seemed. “I know what you’re like with the ladies, Trenchard, cos I seen you, but your own wife…”
This time I refused to look at Mama when Lorrie accused Trenchard of cheating on her, because the impending thundercloud had developed into a raging cataclysm. I guess we all thought he’d have a seizure, I’d never chance to witness his face transfer so purple with anger. Lorrie had dared to stand up to him. Neither of us was prepared for the back of that bony hand flashing from somewhere beneath his coat sleeve, and cracking so viciously against Lorrie’s stomach, that it was enough to send her reeling. The action was so violent that her chair was crashed headlong back against the wall. Lorrie slipping between the two chairs, was unable to raise herself up without my help.