KR OnlineFiction

Patience

Tomato aspic. It’s hard to botch up. You need pickling spices, tomato juice, diced celery ribs. Two packs of plain gelatin, or lemon Jell-O in a pinch, which my mother used back in Georgia when she made aspic for her ladies’ luncheons, gussying it up on a silver tray with sliced egg and—lord knows why—weenies. It’s pretty in a way, glossy red and round like a dome, though truly it’s hideous, hideous. Vodka would improve it, and vodka gels well enough.

Last time I made tomato aspic, I did botch it up. That was when my daughter Jules visited. I thought she liked aspic. I do.

 

He came into my kitchen. Griffin, who would be my son-in-law, except Jules will never marry. They were visiting us for a long weekend in September, all the way from Atlanta, and Jules was in the guest cabin sleeping off jet lag, tea bags over her eyes.

He said, “I have some peas to say to you, Patience.” He meant something.

See, I was shelling peas, my sugar magnolia peas, which are purple and do well on the Oregon coast. I laughed, which made him self-conscious.

“Trust that I don’t want to say this,” he said. “Trust that I don’t want to bring this to you.”

Griffin hunches, but he’s handsome, with steady eyes that sort of droop. He must be forty-five; he’s a few years senior to Jules, and Jules is no spring chicken. I wiped my hand on the dishtowel, folded it, ate a pea, forgetting they’re only tender when young.

It was serious. Normally Griffin is calm as cream. “Would you like some rye? A short jigger?”

No. He wouldn’t. He and my daughter are a lot alike.

“It’s only that I believe strongly in communication,” he said. “And honesty. I feel vulnerable telling you this, Patience.”

The Kit-Cat kitchen clock went tock-wag-tock and leered at him, then at me, then at him.

“Your daughter. She astounds me. She’s generous, devoted. Adventurous. She’s dedicated to her career, to public health. I admire her. Jules leaves me breathless.”

I gave him a smile. They’d been together for what, four years? “I know she cares a lot about you. She says great things.”

“Jules,” he said. “Jules sometimes acts rashly.”

“What do you mean?”

“She sometimes lashes out.”

Outside, rhododendron fingers rasped against my windowpane.

“Lashes out how, Griffin?”

“What I mean is that she struggles, she has difficulty managing her emotions.”

“Jules has always been sensitive.”

“No, it’s not her sensitivity.” He rubbed one button on his shirt cuff. “Managing, that is, her anger.”

I told him he was going to have to be more specific.

 

I love Jules. At my house, by the woodstove or in the garden, she looked yellow. That’s how I can describe it: yellow, yellowed, aged, different. There was a stringy sense to her, like pumpkin. Was she ever beautiful? Of course, all mothers think their daughters are beautiful. As a teenager Jules wore makeup, had terrible vivid eyebrows. No longer.

She was a serious child. She invented machinery out of cardboard and wrote manuals for it. Teachers loved her. She took to animals with something missing—a leg, an eye, front teeth. To pay for her master’s in public health, she waited tables at the Cracker Barrel the whole way through. Brilliant, industrious. She still saves those tiny pepper packets that just crumble apart. Where did she get her sense of thrift and saving? When she pees, she doesn’t flush. Talk about a TV show and she says, “Oh, I don’t watch TV.” She’s always been too skinny. I never thought I would raise a child with no appetite.

As a girl, she accused me of liking her cousin better because Emma Anne acted more like a boy. “I’m more complicated than Emma Anne,” Jules said. “She’s easier.”

“So boys are less complicated?” Well, that was hard to argue with.

You learn to abandon certain desires: peace, grandchildren.

 

So what did Jules do exactly?

This is where Griffin got nervous. Standing in my kitchen that afternoon, he glanced behind him. “Well. She has a strong pitching arm.”

“Her pitching arm? What is she pitching?”

“It depends.”

“She couldn’t pitch as a girl, I can tell you that. She quit softball after two weeks.”

“That’s not the kind of pitching I mean.”

“So what do you mean?”

He looked down at my rag rug. My grandmother made it from cotton-mill scraps, and it is worn almost to nothing.

The nature of her actions, according to Griffin, is rage.

“What kind of rage?”

“She doesn’t trust me. It comes from a lack of trust.” He ran a finger around the lip of a milk-glass mixing bowl on the counter. “It’s like she confuses me for other men.”

“Well. That’s not so hard to do, confuse men for each other. They have a way—men—of blending together, the way one billboard reminds you of another billboard, and you can’t use them as landmarks anymore.”

But Griffin didn’t know what to do with that. “May I ask a question?” He breathed in. “Did her father ever beat her?”

Did Snyder beat her. People want simple reasons. Griffin is a software engineer. He keeps an eyeglass-repair kit on his person. I’ve seen him pull it out and fix Jules’s frames, right under the light of a theater lobby at intermission.

“Griffin, this seems like a question you need to take to Jules.”

He shook his head. “We’ve talked about this. I’ve asked her.”

“And what does she say?”

“She says no. But there’s so much underneath,” he said.

My husband Craig—Jules’s stepfather—walked in then. He said howdy, started opening and shutting cabinets, whistling. Whistling “Campfire Ladies.” Taking too long. Griffin and I stood waiting.

“What are you rustling around for, exactly?” I said.

“I’m looking for the food dye.” Craig’s flannel rode up when he reached into high cabinets, showing white belly. It’s the flannel I hate, the ripped one I ought to throw out.

“And what do you need food dye for?”

“To fill the hummingbird feeders, give them a little treat. They could use a treat.”

Griffin stepped aside to let him rummage. I said, “We talked about this, Craig. We don’t use food dye, it’s dangerous for the birds. We went over this.”

“We did?” That’s the kind of slip Jules looks for; daughters are always looking for lapses of age.

“You should remember that.” But I stayed perky. “Just sugar and boiling water. One part sugar, four parts water.” Griffin took down a saucepan for him.

I said that Griffin and I were headed out to the Gnome Home to look at my rocks. My tumbled rocks. “We’ll be back.”

“Back in time for a game of mah-jongg!” Craig said, and gave Griffin a chummy slap on the back.

 

People ask how we met. I tell them Craig used to walk from the bank with his briefcase and cufflinks to watch me on the steps of the Georgia state capitol. Me on the bullhorn. We held marches at five o’clock so that WSB-TV anchors would interview us, our troops carrying giant coat hangers made from PVC pipes. This was when the anti-choicers in Operation Rescue—we called it Operation Oppress-You—were rabid. Mostly they would interview me.

Craig took me to restaurants where they asked, “Still or sparkling?” Always sparkling.

He sometimes called unannounced. He’d knock on my duplex door, and when we parted he’d say, it has been a tonic to see you. A tonic. He told me my nose was perfectly retroussé. I said, retro what? He was the first man I knew who dipped bread in red wine. His family was Republican, from Maryland. A thin-lipped people.

After I agreed to date him, Craig brought me breakfast in bed, a Coca-Cola, and cream of wheat with a silver soup spoon. I liked my ice crushed, so he put ice in a bag and beat it with a rolling pin.

After twenty-five years, I still marvel at some things that come out of his mouth. Let me just decant the grits.

But Craig was better than the rest, better for Jules and me both. It was his idea to move, finally, to Oregon. We have good friends here who bring us fresh crabs and give awful shows in the local theater. Behind our house, there are piney woods, and in front, not far off, the Pacific.

Decant the grits. I never did like grits.

 

When Jules was very little, she would sit on the floor of our house in Atlanta and bite her father’s leg hairs. Just the way children do. The two of them got along fine. Snyder called her ploffskin from a nonsense rhyme: Ploffskin, pluffskin, pelican jee! We think no birds so happy as we! My ploffskin pelican, strange little girl. There’s no one in the world like you.

Snyder was gentle with her. Despicable in general, yes, he was. He cheated clients at the insurance company and cheated me of alimony. On his nights to have Jules, he let her skip tooth-brushing and stay up too late. But her body—he never abused her body, and I never would have let him, and I wouldn’t have let a soul.

On his birthday, Jules goes to see him on the other side of town. Snyder really wasn’t all terrible. He wasn’t a racist. I mean, not as much as normal.

I don’t know how Jules still lives there, in Atlanta. In that city heat, that island of heat, which is what they call it: the Heat Island. Oh hot, hot and dry, hotter than Hades and hot enough that murders and beatings go up, hotter than two rats in a wool sock. Than two rats fucking.

 

The Gnome Home, on the edge of my garden, stays chilled and dark and rich-smelling with potting soil. My collection of wooden rabbits lives there, on the shelves, each rabbit against the wall with one rabbit eye staring at you.

“I’m not trying to pull any teeth here,” I said to Griffin. He stood on the other end of the shed. “But I am trying to figure out just what it is Jules has done.”

His eyes moved over the shelves, over the rabbits, over the box of polished rocks.

“Small things. Some of them small.” Once she pushed him against a wall, starting to hit him before he got away. Once she kicked him in the middle of the chest. They were arguing about house chores. Once she threw a lemon squeezer, a metal one, and it cracked the shower tile.

“But it only hit tile?”

“I was crouching. But it’s not about the specific acts.”

“These are fights, aren’t they? In a fight, both people tend to participate. Yell sometimes, get mad. Do you ever get mad?”

“I do. Of course I do. But I try to stay calm, and mostly I do stay calm. I’ve certainly never thrown anything, and I almost never raise my voice. She does.”

“Your stature is bigger. You’re taller, wider than she is, and stronger.”

“That’s true. I don’t deny that.”

“They have a name for this, don’t they? Domestic disharmony. Couple troubles.”

“This is more than disharmony.” He closed his arms against the damp air. “You can’t talk about this type of thing, because it seems comical. People don’t take it seriously. I mean, a lemon squeezer? I can’t talk about it, no one will hear it, no one wants to hear it, there’s too much, I don’t know, too much shame.”

“Well.” I took two paper cups from the Gnome Home shelf and filled them in the work sink. Good spring water. I was suddenly thirsty. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that’s happened to you.” And I was sorry.

He noticed the water, thanked me.

“So has it ever hurt?”

He didn’t answer. He looked at the speckled pattern of his cup. “Her anger seems to be—”

“What?”

“Boundless. I don’t know. Large. Incomprehensible.”

Boundless.

“Afterward she’s always sweet. She apologizes, she pledges to be better, she brings home dinner, she listens, she’s soft, she’s kind. For days and days. Weeks even.”

He waited.

What did he want me to do?

He looked at me with those sweet, harmless, symmetrical peepers. “Will you talk to her?”

 

My name was poorly chosen. This was back when girls were named for virtues: Chastity, Charity, Temperance, Verity. I was the eldest, but I got the shittiest lot. My sister got Clara.

Once, a thousand years ago, I had to chew out a Greyhound ticket agent after they lost my reservation from somewhere to somewhere, maybe Macon to Chicago, and after our spat the agent said, “Your first name?”

I told her, “Patience.”

Smacking her chewing gum, the girl said, “Why don’t you change it, like change it to your middle name?”

I said, “Because my goddamn middle name is Henrietta.” When, in fact, it is Millicent, but, still, that is just as bad.

Sometimes it still sounds strange to me. Sometimes it even sounds terrible. A patient woman is, at best, forgettable.

But was I ever at risk of being forgettable?

As a girl, I liked dark meat, when nice white girls were supposed to like white meat. That’s the type of girl I was. The mothers of other girls disliked me. My legs were shapely. I earned my own money. In high school, I wrote a column for the Macon Telegraph on the teenage social scene and got invited to parties with sherbet punch. I brought beer. Boys and men sent me letters, poems about whippoorwills, lakes in summer. They were worth a laugh.

All my columns ended the same way: A good time was had by all.

Jules was different. Muted, watchful, always sitting in corners, always drinking from chewed-up straws. She didn’t have many boyfriends; she was the kind of girl who scared boys. That made me proud.

Things I did, I did so she would thrive. I stitched together work. I installed air conditioners, I started a landscaping business and hired only women, even though we had to charge less, of course, than regular landscapers. I waited tables and boxed up the extra biscuits for morning. And I did more desperate things.

There was never much money. We bought bags of irregular fortune cookies from the fortune-cookie factory, a buck for five pounds. Just the cookies were irregular, not the fortunes.

 

Once, after dropping out of school, I helped organize with SNCC when the hospital in Athens was cheating black women of their pay. Forty of us, different colors, bused out from Atlanta to rally, then we bused back that night. We sang songs, we had fun together.

So it’s dark and we’re dog-tired, and on the road back our driver, who was black, pulls the bus off the highway into a busy parking lot, and someone says, “Sir, we can’t eat here. This is Sambo’s.” And we all agree: we can’t eat here. This was when there were a thousand Sambo’s across the nation, with their Tiger Butter and pictures on the wall: Black Mumbo ate twenty-seven pancakes, Black Jumbo ate fifty-five.

The driver turns around. “I been hanging round this bus since 6:00 a.m. I’m hungry. I’m sweaty. I like their pancakes with the strawberries on top.”

So we file in to dine at Sambo’s, wearing our little buttons. The pancakes were good, not too dense. I guess you can’t be angry all the time.

 

My mother thought Patience was the wrong name, too. “Go get the soap,” she’d tell me. For that dirty mouth.

But it was a skill I cultivated, to curse and let out anger. There are, when it comes down to it, always reasons to have anger.

Deadheading sweet peas last week, an old familiar idiotic pain shot up from my thumb to my bad shoulder, and a string of those words came out. I couldn’t stop. Goddamn hell dickwad dumbfuck and dickweed thunderfuck fuckered asshat shitgoose shit knockers cheese and rice Jesus fucking Christ fuck me sideways Christ on a cracker.

I heard on Good Morning America that people who know more curse words know more words generally.

My grandmother Lottie Mae had a vocabulary that sparkled, and she didn’t graduate junior high. A superb Scrabble player. She could string the high-scoring letters together—Z, Q, W. She could tell you what erubescent means. She could tell you what a naiad is.

Women in my family were like that.

Why did I keep my name, why didn’t I change it? My father chose it. I was sentimental, I guess. He was a good man; everyone said that. He made us tiny pancakes and called them gold doubloons. At Christmas, he took out a pocketknife to slowly slit the tape on each of his gifts, as if in respect to the paper.

 

All weekend, they were lovey with each other. Jules’s fingers on his elbow. His hand squeezing her shoulder. Their legs close on the couch, the two drizzling each other in soft, private murmurs.

It’s good, seeing her laugh. He manages to make her laugh.

Griffin brought me pecans—not some fancy pecans, but real Georgia pecans that he shelled himself, better pecans than they have in Oregon, which remind me of fire ants under a magnifying glass. Griffin is considerate. It’s a gesture Jules wouldn’t think of.

It’s true, I might have thrown a glass or two at some boyfriends in those long, tangled fights that couples have. Never when Jules was in the room. It happened a lot, with friends of mine—throw a bowl at the floor, give a slap, get into a yelling fit out of fury, or what they called passion.

And the men usually slapped back.

But Jules lifting her foot to kick him. Jules picking up a metal thing to throw. Pulling back her arm for momentum.

I didn’t tell Craig what Griffin told me. And maybe he told me in confidence, anyway. It wouldn’t have helped, consulting Craig while we were alone in bed, while he worked VapoRub onto his chest with a towel draped over the lampshade to dim it. I hate when he drapes a towel over the lampshade. It reminds me of when I was poor.

Besides, I know what Craig would have said.

Wow.

Is Jules in therapy these days?

She did have those fits as a girl.

Is this the first time? The first boyfriend it’s happened to?

Where do you think it comes from?

And what did you say back?

 

That afternoon, standing in the dank shed, I told Griffin, of course. Of course I would talk to Jules.

I thought the conversation was finished. But Griffin doesn’t let up.

He said he wants to understand her, simply to understand.

“I’ve asked her questions. I’ve proposed therapy for us both, together. I’m always asking what I can do, I want to support her. Four years, and I feel I can’t get to it, can’t even start. Jules. Jules is sometimes like a room with a door I can’t quite open.”

“What would make you think there’s a door?”

Outside, pinecones clattered onto the shed roof. “She used to hurt herself as a teenager. Is that right?”

I poured more water from the tap; my mouth was dry again. I hate drinking from paper cups. “She struggled with that, yes, the way some people struggle with it.”

“And later?”

Later? “I don’t know everything about it. She didn’t tell me much. I tried to get her to talk, but it’s hard to get your daughter to talk, do you know that? As a mother? It’s hard.”

“I can certainly imagine.”

“She’s a complicated person. You must have known that when you started seeing her.”

Griffin emptied his cup in the drain and set it on the counter.

He looked right at me. “Was she ever abused by anyone? Someone outside the family? Ever molested, I mean. The effects of these things are so insidious.”

Molest. That easy word, to bother.

Yes. Yes, she was, I told him. She was. She was.

He sucked in, moving his feet like he was trying to get something off the bottom. He shook his head, and I could tell what he was thinking: oh that he knew it, he knew it, he knew it all along.

I told him, “No. No, she wasn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“She wasn’t. She was. She wasn’t and she was.”

He looked up. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“I can’t figure,” I said, ready to go back to my kitchen and my peas so purple and so bright. “What made you think you could come here asking questions and find simple answers, easy, clean.”

 

Uncle Abner. The Reverend Julius Keene. The man who lived in the bungalow across from Robin Fogg’s house. The Reverend Matthew Tanner. Leone Pitt. J. B. Lentry. Archie Clifton. On my father’s side, my second cousin. On my mother’s side, my grandfather.

That’s just who comes to mind, that’s just who I can think of from rumors, secrets at Bible camp and cotillion, or revelations later on. There are always more.

One girl in our neighborhood used to wear two pairs of shorts on weekends, to slow her father down.

Once, I was called to grand jury in DeKalb County, and the cases I saw kept me from eating. When the survivors were black—two elderly black women, for instance, found afterward in a garage—it’s not hard to guess how their white rapists were treated. Like nice neighborhood boys, gone a little astray.

Our grandfather was known, known but never spoken about. My mother knew, my father knew, Lottie Mae knew. They all knew. They never meant for us to be alone with him, but he had magic ways of appearing, in the corncrib where we played, next to the kitchen pie safe. Insidious.

Does Griffin expect that tradition and our memories of it to just evaporate, like a puff of steam, one generation to the next?

 

Before moving to Oregon, I was told there’d be lavender on the coast all year. And there is.

Great sprigs. Hardy leaves of dinosaur kale, stalks of chard as pink and yellow as popsicles. Here you might gather figs from thistles and grapes from thorns. Anything is possible.

There is water here. Our tank holds five hundred gallons; it flows down the mountain by gravity and tastes like sage. That’s what everyone wants, water. Water we want.

Summer in Atlanta? People stand on their toilets and watch your yard from bathroom windows; if your hose runs too long, they call the cops. And I watched everything die: I watched my trillium die, my hollyhock die. I watched my begonia die, drought after drought. I watched friends die. In the eighties, I watched men die, and I watched no one care.

What would bring me back to Georgia? What heirloom could you bribe me with, what sweepstakes winnings? What disaster, what flood could wash me there as flotsam?

You can grow anything here, nearly, besides magnolias. I tried.

 

I told Griffin I would talk to her, and I did try.

On Sunday, we hosted a luncheon so that my friends could see Jules. Beforehand, she and I stood over cutting boards in my kitchen. I’ve seen Jules cook. She burns butter. She’ll boil eggs for ten minutes, and she’ll use Dawn to scrub cast iron. So I gave her a simple task: to slice limes for the gin gimlets.

All the fixings were ready for lunch: pimento cheese, vinegar pie, deviled eggs. The crowning aspic, still in its mold.

When Jules saw the aspic, she said, “We’re serving that? Gruesome color.”

“A nice flavor, though,” I said. “Classic. Don’t you like aspic? It’s not so pretty now, but it will be soon when it gets gussied up.” Filling a bowl with warm water, I watched the bubbles throw fits as the water settled. “So how are things, things between you and Griffin?”

She pushed a piece of limp hair back from her eyes. “They’re OK. They’re good, actually.”

“Does he still treat you well?”

“What would make you think he doesn’t treat me well?” she asked.

“Honey, I don’t think that.” I was looking for words. “Just seems, you know, like a question to ask now and then.”

“You don’t need to ask.”

Jules, at the counter, was cutting limes the wrong direction and too thick; didn’t she know what a gimlet looks like? I said, “Would you please slice those limes into wheels? Wheels. Not wedges. Like this.” I took the knife from her hand.

“Why like that? Aren’t wedges OK? I’ve done all these wedges.”

But I went ahead and cut the rest, tossing the lime ends into the compost.

“I remember now,” she said. “Things are only done one way, according to your vision.”

“You think I’m high and mighty,” I said. “But I’ve had gimlets at the Empress Hotel on the Queen Mary. Mine are superior.”

“Superior.”

“Yes. That’s right. What’s wrong with that? You don’t believe me?”

Jules looked at me, taken aback. We’ve never had an easy time talking.

Nodding to the aspic, she said, “So do people out here actually like that stuff?”

“They eat it,” I said. “I guess to you it’s a joke or an embarrassment, but they eat it.” With her arms crossed there, Jules looked like me, me in blue jeans before women wore blue jeans.

I dipped the aspic pan in warm water and, carefully, unmolded the red aspic onto a bed of lettuce. Gleaming. Hideous. It brought to mind, suddenly, those paintings of John the Baptist with his head severed on a silver platter, handed over to some queen.

There is so much I did wrong. I never thought otherwise.

“Griffin and I talked the other day,” I said.

“You did?” She turned to face me.

“He wanted to talk.”

“Griffin treats me remarkably well,” she said. “Better than I deserve.”

That’s impossible. She deserves the world.

 

It was a luncheon done right. Craig didn’t polish the silver with toothpaste like I told him, so it was tarnished, but I let it go.

My friends, my funky, small-town women friends, transplants from all over, brought odd things―pear juice and kelp chips and focaccia―even though I told them to bring nothing. My friends wear feathers and make noise; they gossip cruelly, kindly, grab at each other’s earrings, flirt with younger men like Griffin. Griffin, eating deviled eggs and listening with polite attention.

A good time was had by all. But the aspic, it was rancid—I hadn’t tasted the tomato juice. When a friend cut into it, she said, “Patience, this is horrible.” She was right.

Jules was probably thinking with dread, That’s what I’ll look like in twenty years. Like us.

Rose Lambert Sluder
Rose Lambert-Sluder is from Asheville, North Carolina. She was recently a writer in residence at Ox-Bow School of Art, and her latest work appears in the Greensboro Review. She lives in Portland, Oregon.