Sweet Thyme Baby – 10

 

Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

10

(Start at the Beginning of Sweet Thyme Baby)

(Click here to read Section 9 first)

 

Sissypuss reclined on the edge of the patio. Though his eyes appeared closed, a slit of green was barely visible where his upper and lower lids did not quite meet. He had been lying still as cold caramel for almost an hour, his gaze narrowed on the vegetable garden, on a patch of romaine lettuce.

 

Maggie watched him out the window. “That cat’s like one of them cube puzzles. I never will figure him out.” She leaned her stomach against the sink, her back to Dee. “He’s been out there in the sun since before breakfast, and I don’t think he’s moved a muscle.”

 

“That’s what cats do. They sleep in the sun.”

 

“His eyes aren’t closed all the way. He’s watching something in the vegetable garden.”

 

Dee sighed. “Worms.”

 

Maggie humphed. She was of the opinion Sissypuss saw things the rest of them did not.

 

Dee leaned around Maggie and poured the dregs of her coffee down the sink. She walked outside, letting the screen door slam behind her.

 

“Silly puss,” she said and bent to lift the cat into her arms. “You wouldn’t like the taste of that little guy.” Or maybe he would.  The green worms had dined on spicy nasturtiums all spring. She pressed her face into the cat’s warm belly. For all she knew, green worms might be a delicacy.

 

The morning air was sweet as the fragrance of a fruit pie lifted from the oven and placed to cool on a window ledge. Memories danced at the corner of Dee’s mind and on such a pretty morning with her arms around a warm purring cat it seemed safe to look at them. Just a little memory on a soft morning, what would be the harm?

 

She remembered being three, sitting in the flower bed outside the kitchen window of her grandparent’s house in Lodi in the heart of the San Joaquin. She was dirty from a day making mud pies with her cousin, Victor. Overhead, on the sill of the open window, a nectarine pie in a tin plate sent out sugary pheromones. In a minute, she and Victor would push a chicken crate under the windowsill and stand on it to dip their fingers in sweet goo.

 

Sissypuss squirmed in Dee’s arms. She dropped the impatient creature and watched him stalk a pair of mourning doves picking at seeds in the sunflower bed.

 

Like Carlotta Ryan, Dee’s grandmother had kept an orchard and vegetable garden. Plums and nectarines and peaches big as cabbages. Tomatoes and zucchini and scarlet runner beans on vines up the side of the chicken coop. Early on summer mornings Dee and Victor got up as the sun rose and ran outside without breakfast, barefoot, still dressed in what they wore to bed — underpants and tee shirts without sleeves – until Grandma called them inside, made them wash and put on shorts, and fed them wedges of egg and bacon pie.

 

Cherry tomatoes ignored the law of vegetables that segregates them into rows apart from flowers. They went to seed in Grandma’s rose garden, under the crape myrtle, in the middle of the lawn; they sprawled and fruited like hussies. One summer twilight – the other time of day when it was good to be outside, running wild, ragamuffins the neighbor lady called them, poor little good-for-nothings – Victor snitched Grandma’s long darning needle and a spool of white thread and strung Dee a necklace of unripe fruit.  “Green pearls,” he said as he dropped it over her head. “You got eyes the same.”  Dee had dressed up in Grandma’s old-lady-pink slip and her big-heeled shoes with toe holes. Done up so, wearing her green pearls, the cousins married themselves under the pink crape myrtle. A gust of warm wind had blown through the yard, blossoms fell, and Dee remembered twirling in circles with her arms outstretched crying, “pink snow, pink snow.”

 

And now Victor had found her, now he was in Cabrillo Point; and he wasn’t going to leave until she saw him.

 

Dee reached into the pocket of her Levis and pulled out the crumpled message hand-delivered that morning by the son of the inn’s owner. She sat on the patio steps and smoothed it on her knee.

 

I need your help, Dee. I’m counting on you.

 

How many times had she heard those words from him?

 

Until he called on the day of the funeral she had believed time could bleach away her memories of Victor – like the stains on Grandpa’s tee shirts hung on the umbrella clothesline along with darned sheets and pillowcases and towels with frayed edges. She should have known better. The way Grandpa smelled, a gallon of bleach couldn’t get it out of his shirts. Grandma said, “You stink of the chicken coop clear through to your bones, Roy Ray. I’ll never get these clean.”

 

It was cool and drippy and smelled of bleach under the clothesline. Victor and Dee lay on their backs looking up through the wash at the sky that was always bright blue. Her hair was silky and more silver-white than yellow in those days. Hair like Marilyn Monroe Victor told her. “You can be a movie star when you grow up. Me too. I’ll be like John Wayne. When I’m rich, I’ll buy you a house and a car and a fur coat and a big ring.”

 

Victor was thirteen and caught with a pocket full of money he couldn’t explain: Grandpa said he’d turn his backside bloody and got out the belt to prove he meant it.

 

“Just tell him where you got it,” Grandma pleaded. “Just tell and give it back and he won’t hurt you.”

 

“I’ll make you wish you ain’t been born, boy.”

 

“Shutup, old man, shut your face.”

 

Dee had been in the next room with her ear pressed to the thin wall and her whole body trembled. She knew Victor had gambled some high school boys out of all their pocket money, and they had come after him with a baseball bat. He lost them in the orchards west of town and doubled back home after dark, wading through the irrigation ditch. He woke Dee up when he got home, shook her until she sat up bleary-eyed and frightened, sensing trouble like she always could. He dropped twenty dollars and thirty-nine cents in her lap; she got excited and that’s how Victor got caught. She had never known how to be excited in a quiet way. How to keep from laughing and talking fast, louder and faster, louder.

 

So stubborn was Victor that after that beating, no matter how hard Grandpa went at him – once so bad he could not walk for two days – he kept on gambling and he kept on showing off his winnings, taunting the old man because he could make in a night what took Grandpa a hard day’s work. The raging, the goading and the beatings: living with Victor had been like riding a bike downhill, no hands, feet off the pedals. Scary but going somewhere, definitely going somewhere.

 

Behind Dee the kitchen door opened.

 

“You got company,” Maggie said. “He says he’s your cousin. I told him you wouldn’t see him, but he says you will.”

 

Dee got up from the step and brushed herself off. “He’s right.”

 

“You don’t have to. I can go get George and Pinkus…”

 

“Never mind, Maggie. I may as well get it over with.” Dee looked at her reflection in the windows at the back of the house and wondered, will he still think I’m beautiful like Marilyn Monroe?

 

Not likely.

 

But he was still handsome, that hadn’t changed. She had that old automatic reaction when he came through the kitchen door onto the patio wearing snug stonewashed Levis and a flowered shirt with a long pointed collar, a pale blue linen sport coat. Her heart sped up. She couldn’t stop it happening. He was still dark where she was fair, still tall like her and his eyes too were green – not green pearls like hers, darker, like murky river water. Most of all, his mouth hadn’t changed. The full lower lip, the slightly off-center notch in his upper lip. A mouth for kissing.

 

She had opened her mind to memory and there was no stopping it now. In the space between breaths she remembered kissing Victor the first time and the swollen-all-over feeling it gave her. Cousins in crime Grandma had called them, mischievous and half wild. Greedy kids wanting freedom, breaking rules, counting the years until they could get away from Lodi and the house that smelled of old people. They were kids lying on her bed spending imaginary money. Victor touched her breast and her nipple hardened so fast she felt it pinch. He told her he had been with Ruthie Lopez in the back of their grandfather’s car, done it to her every way he could; and all the time, every time, he had imagined the fat little migrant worker was Dee.

 

On the patio, Victor held out his arms. “You look great, Dee.”  She wouldn’t step into his embrace although he obviously expected she would. When she stayed put, he stopped a few feet short of her and let his arms drop slowly to illustrate his hurt and disappointment. “I wasn’t sure you’d see me.”

 

One night in the back seat with pretty Ruthie and Victor was an expert at love. Powerful and smooth as old whiskey and just as dangerous in excess. But she didn’t know that back in Lodi. In her bedroom, on the grass outside on summer nights, in the garage in the back of Grandpa’s old car: “We fit,” he told her as he slipped inside her. She was wet as a new lawn after a rainstorm. “We were made for each other.”

 

“You didn’t answer my calls. Why?”

 

Because I loved you and you broke my heart, she thought. You broke my life in two and threw it against the wall like a ripe peach and I let it happen because loving you made me stupid.

 

“Dee?”

 

She manufactured a smile. I will force myself to be polite. He will say what he must and then go away and I can forget him again.

 

“Sit down,” she said. “Maggie’s fairly predictable. She’ll come out and offer you coffee or tea or something in a couple of minutes.”

 

“What I’d really like is a drink.”

 

Of course he would. “I don’t keep liquor.” A small lie.

 

He sat on a redwood patio chair and crossed his leg at right angles. “Grandma’d envy you that vegetable garden.”

 

“What do you want, Victor?”

 

“I’m staying at the Inn on the Square. The owner tells me you inherited this place.” He nodded as if this information confirmed something he had always known.

 

The door opened and Maggie, came onto the patio with a tray, talking. “I brought you some lemonade, Dee. The Meyers are going wild so I thought I’d better start using the fruit. Hope it’s not too tart for you, Mister?”

 

“Thank you, Maggie. Just put the tray on the table.”

 

Maggie glared at Dee and went back inside.

 

“Housekeeper, big house, the plant business yours too?”

 

“If you’ve come for money, Victor, you can save your breath. I have no cash and even if I did I wouldn’t give it to you.”

 

He made a show of being hurt.

 

“How did you find me?”

 

“There’s a guy, a P.I., owed me a favor. Only took him a couple of days.”

 

She had no driver’s license, took no salary and had not used her social security card since she left L.A. Yet she could be found.

 

“Tell me what you want.”

 

He took a sip of lemonade. “I think you know.”

 

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t.”

 

“The movies, Dee. Our movies.”

 

Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

 

Click here to read Part 11 of Sweet Thyme Baby

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