Y COUSIN IMOGENE scrapes back her chair onto the pock-marked linoleum and simultaneously lights what I count from the evidence in the crowded ash tray to be her twentieth cigarette of the morning.
“What’s so funny, Marlee?” Imogene asks.
...Who didn’t take out the cantaloupe rind and caused all the gnats? Who didn’t chock the tires and took out the side of the porch? Who didn’t wear a rubber and got the Benson twins pregnant?
Her smoke-ravaged voice is a croak now, a wheezing rasp. I was seeing a frog in her chair or a toad, cigarette mirrored in its big bulging eyes.
“Just smiling at the prospect of some pinto beans; it’s been a while for me,” I lie.
“And whose fault is that?”
My family have always been labelers of fault, catalogers of what you did and when you did it, and all the trouble you caused. Who didn’t take out the cantaloupe rind and caused all the gnats? Who didn’t chock the tires and took out the side of the porch? Who didn’t wear a rubber and got the Benson twins pregnant?
Poor though we were, there was always enough blame to go around. The question hangs in the air like the smoke: Who didn’t call or write for close to ten years and lost a family?
The high sweet melody of tobacco lilts through the small kitchen, scrubbed and scoured colorless. I stare at the full ashtray, a blasphemy here. Imogene notices and snorts what might be a laugh or just an actual snort. Her broad nose is what my husband called swine-like, but, he would add, on a body that would make a man butt his head against a headstone.
“What’re you smiling about now? And don’t lie this time,” Imogene asks.
“I was thinking about Rory. He always loved to come up here to this cabin. He loved these woods. He said that no matter how many times he took pictures of the spring flowers, he just couldn’t get them right.”
“That Rory was a sweet man and he took some fine pitchers.” Imogene pushes back her chair some more and stands. The fast movement sets off a coughing spasm that bends her double. She examines the tissue that she takes from her mouth, opens a lid on the wood-burning cook stove, and throws away the pink-stain. There is a bright puff of light. “I was so sorry that I couldn’t come to his funeral. I didn’t have any way to get there.” And I hear the blame. Jesus Christ, how many times in a day’s conversation can I be chastised? Countless is the answer.
She straightens her back and walks to a pie stand where I see cartons of Winstons, boxes of matches, an empty Dixie Delight Peanuts can, and an old cigar box. “Hey,” I say, “can I have that peanut can?”
Imogene raises one eyebrow, another family defining characteristic: we can raise one eyebrow and make you feel like you done us all so wrong. “Sure,” she says, “it’s empty as my old wallet.”
(I should mention that I am a recent widow, rich in money and richer in sorrow. I should mention that my husband’s ashes rest in peace out in the back seat of our SUV in their cardboard box. That I have carried them down through the South, across the mountains, looking to put them where they belong, wherever they want to light, wherever they need to go. This empty peanut tin sounds as if it might be the beginning of the end.)
Imogene hands me the Dixie Delight can, while placing the cigar box on the table. She opens it, and rifles through some old black and whites and at the bottom some brightly colored photographs. She squints at the assortment.
I used to wonder if her having been born with crossed eyes was the reason she always seemed bent to the wrong direction, if maybe there was some circuit in her brain that could never be rewired even by the surgery that almost straightened her eyes.
From the pictures that she spills in front of me, I recognize immediately the picture of the tiny blonde girl. “Oh, look at that baby,” I say. “Wasn’t she the sweetest child ever born into this family? How is Deedee?” And then I remember and wish I hadn’t said anything at all.
“Well, I know Denny told you about all the doping she got into, but she finally came back from doing all that, skinny and wore out. That meth will do a job on a woman.”
“Oh, she’s back. I am so glad….” I start to say.
“But then her mother-in-law, that hateful bitch, wouldn’t give her back her baby. And the court agreed and Deedee just left again.” Imogene strikes a match and lights a cigarette. She sucks deeply. I can feel the smoke fill her lungs. My own chest rises.