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Miss Sister Easterbrooks held the plastic-wrapped slab of pork up close to her Coke-bottle-thick glasses. The milky brown eyes took a long, educated look. She sniffed disdainfully. "Don't look like fatback. Don't smell like it neither."
Her sister, Miss Baby Easterbrooks, nodded in agreement and clucked her tongue. "Couldn't find no pig knuckles at all. Sorry. That's what. The Auburn Avenue Curb Market got all cleaned up and fancy. Too good for itself, that's what I say."
"I know that's right," Sister said. "Can't make no mess of greens with fatback smells like a shower curtain."
Baby and Sister are technically employees of The House Mouse, our cleaning business. "Older than dirt" was the only age either one would admit to, although we guessed they were closing in on eighty. Baby is as close to deafness as Sister is to blindness, but the two of them manage to clean maybe one house a week, working as a team.
They had been carping about the downfall of the Auburn Avenue Curb Market ever since the Atlanta institution on the corner of Auburn and Butler was renovated a few years ago. Health inspectors had demanded sneeze guards and hairnets and plastic gloves. Soul had been sacrificed for sanitation, and Baby and Sister were still mourning the loss of their favorite vendors. They would have no truck with meat they couldn't view up close and personal.
Baby recited the menu as she unloaded the grocery sacks.
"Fried chicken. Collard greens. Sweet potatoes. Biscuits. Apple cobbler. Now, Callahan, it ain't fancy, but your mama, she'll be ready for some home cooking. Ain't that right?"
It was Edna's coming home dinner. She'd gottena bad cold in September, and it had lingered and worsened until her racking cough had led me to bundle her into the car and deliver her, wheezy protests and all, to our family doctor. An hour later she was admitted to Piedmont Hospital, diagnosed as having pneumonia, and put on oxygen and intravenous antibiotics.
I still shudder when I think of the way she looked in that hospital bed. My larger-than-life mother shrunken with illness and fatigue, blue-tinted hair matted to her head, her face the color of unwashed sheets, eyes ringed with dark circles, tubes everywhere.
Edna had had a double mastectomy years ago, but I was a kid then, and my father was still alive, and with the invincibility of youth, I thought of her hospital stay and recuperation back then as a minor inconvenience to the family. Five years ago I had my own brush with the C word: a lump on my right breast, followed by a lumpectomy and the happy news that my cancer was early and noninvasive. Since then I've tried to be a good little girl. I eat my broccoli and cauliflower, drink bottled water, cross my fingers at mammogram time, and try to avoid stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk.
My mother had been smoking three packs of cigarettes a day since her early teens. Nothing anyone said or did could detach those long slender fingers from her filter tips.
Now it was all I could do to stand by the bed and hold her hand while Jeanne Payne, our family doctor, ranted at her about her smoking.
I'd known Jeanne since we were in Girl Scouts together. She could probably still fit in her Brownie uniform. Five foot two, slender, with thick, wavy dark hair, she somehow managed to cut an imposing figure in her white lab coat. Maybe it was the bifocals she wore on the bridge of her nose. Or the fact that she'd finished Emory Medical School at twenty-six, first in her class, youngest, brightest, shortest.
"You've got a spot on your right lung, Edna," she said, getting right to the point. "Your pulmonary capacity is roughly that of a tubercular ninety-year-old coal miner. All your symptoms point to the early signs of emphysema."
Edna winced and squeezed my hand. "You want me to quit smoking."
Jeanne shrugged. She could be merciless if circumstances merited it. "Only if you want to stick around for another few years to spend your kids' inheritance."
Edna tried to laugh, but the chuckle disintegrated into a spasm of coughing.
"There's a woman your age in a room two doors down here," Jeanne continued. "She's being discharged tomorrow, same as you. But she's going home with a portable oxygen tank. Going to be hooked up to a breathing mask and a canister of oxygen twenty-four hours a day. That's the best we can do for her."
She looked sternly down at Edna. "Is that what you want?"
Edna sighed. "No. No oxygen tank. I'll try. Okay?"
Jeanne crossed her arms over her chest, hugging the clipboard with Edna's chart. "Trying's not going to make it this time, Edna," she said, her attitude softening just a smidge. "The pneumonia has weakened your heart muscles. We're going to release you tomorrow, but I want you back in my office next week. You're a good candidate for those new nicotine patches, and I've also got the names of some smoking cessation programs I can give you. Later on, when you're stronger, we want to run some more tests on that heart of yours."
"I can go home?" Edna leaned her head back on her pillow and closed her eyes. For the first time I noticed the blue veins in her lids, the tiny network of wrinkles radiating out from the corners of her eyes. When had she gotten so old?
"Tomorrow," Jeanne said. "You've been here a week with no cigarettes. So you've got a head start on quitting. Right?"
"I never liked you," Edna said, not bothering to open her eyes. "Go away and let me sleep."
I followed Jeanne out into the hallway.
"She's really sick, huh?"
"She's a lot better than she was," Jeanne said. "But I meant what I said about the smoking. You live with her. Can't you get her to quit?"
"How long have you known us?" I asked.
Jeanne pursed her lips and thought about it. "Second grade, right? More than thirty years." She grinned. "You're right. Nobody makes Edna Mae Garrity do anything."
"She's scared this time," I pointed out. "You notice she didn't say she wouldn't quit. That's a first."
That had been on Friday. Now it was Saturday. My sister Maureen and her no-account husband had volunteered to bring Edna home from the hospital. My brother Kevin had been transferred to San Diego in September. And Baby and Sister had arrived with all the makings for dinner.
Maureen had installed Edna on the living room sofa, swathed her with quilts, and was now lining up her array of medicine bottles on the coffee table.
"Can't we put those somewhere else?" I asked, irritated that Maureen had once again taken over my house.
"She needs to see her medicine so she can remember to take them all," Maureen snapped, plumping a pillow behind Edna's head.
Steve, Maureen's husband, who had ensconced himself in my favorite overstuffed chintz armchair, nodded rapidly in agreement, holding the remote control out at the television, flipping rapidly through the channels.
"I'm not helpless," Edna snapped. "Put the damn pill bottles in my room, Maureen. We're not setting up a clinic in here."
"I'm just trying to help," Maureen said, tears rising in her eyes.
Home fifteen minutes and we were already in round two of Family Feud. I walked quickly into the kitchen.
Baby stood at the kitchen counter on a footstool, whacking away at the chickens with a giant meat cleaver, while Sister was at the stove, dumping some evil-looking piece of meat into her bubbling pot of greens. The sugary smell of baking apples and yams mingled with the sharp vinegar smell of the collards and I suddenly felt myself relax for the first time in days.
"Can I help?" I asked timidly.
Sister rolled her eyes at Baby. "You the cleanup crew, Callahan," Sister said, wiping her hands on one of Edna's aprons. "Go on and stay out the way now."
It amuses all the girls, which is what I call the House Mouse employees, to think that I'm helpless in the kitchen. Like all the women in my family, I'm actually a pretty damned good cook. My macaroni and cheese makes you want to smack your mama, it's so fine. But when Edna sold her house in the suburbs and moved in with me here in Candler Park, part of our agreement was that I'd stay out of the kitchen and let her do the cooking. It didn't take much arm-twisting to get me to let her have her way.
Edna's playing cards sat in a neat but dog-eared stack in a corner of the worn oak kitchen table, near her empty ashtray. I slid open the drawer in the table and stashed the ashtray inside. Out of sight, out of mind. Then I dealt myself a hand of solitaire. Like cooking, and putting our noses in other people's business, solitaire is a Garrity family habit. We play it when we're tired or worried. To calm down, or take our minds off whatever troubles nibble at the corners of our subconscious. Heart Trouble. Copyright © by Kathy Hogan Trocheck. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted April 21, 2010
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Posted January 21, 2010
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Posted February 16, 2010
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