“Taste this,” Nancy ordered as she shoved a spoonful of macaroni salad in Jamal’s mouth. “Is it enough tuna? You know how Bertram and them like it with a lot of tuna.”
She put her other hand on her hip. “Lord knows they never lift a finger to buy a single can but they sure want to tell you how to make it.”
Jamal licked mayonnaise from the corners of his mouth. He had come for the rest of his glass of sweet tea from dinner and instead found himself wrangled by his mom in a kitchen full of burbling pots and pans.
“You know, Daddy loved daffodils. I bet he’d be disappointed to see how the cold did them this year,” Nancy said as she turned back to the little window over the sink and squinted into the dark. It was only 4 a.m. but her potato salad needed just a few more ingredients. She had so much to do.
Jamal scratched his neck. “Ma, why are you cooking? Auntie Stella said–”
“Boy, you know Stella can’t cook. Besides, everybody’s gonna be looking for my potato salad.” She whipped the big spoon around the silver bowl until it sang.
Jamal watched, hypnotized by the rhythm of her wrist.
She stopped stirring and looked at him over the tops of her glasses. “The macaroni salad?”
“Oh! Yeah, it’s great. But what is all this?” Jamal asked as he waved a hand across the kitchen. “You should be resting.”
“What in the world do I have to rest for? Daddy would be cross if I didn’t feed these people right, today of all days.”
Jamal tiptoed to the refrigerator and opened the door. He had put his glass at the back of the first shelf, which was now filled with rainbow gelatin molds. He checked behind each one and sighed; he surveyed the kitchen again and spied his now-empty glass as it sat on a pile of dirty dishes.
“Boy, shut that ice box before you let all the cold air out.”
Jamal walked to the sink, rinsed the glass, and filled it with tap water. “Ice boxes went the way of the dinosaur, Ma. What you have there is an energy-efficient piece of 21st century technology.” He paused to savor a swallow of water and grimaced. He had become accustomed to his filtered city water; distance and time had changed many of the old country homestead’s flavors in the five years since he had left home. Jamal Washington was on his way up the ladder of success and the timing of this particular family issue could not have been worse. He thought there was nothing left for him in the neighborhood and shook the thought away quickly; his family was there and that certainly was more than nothing.
He watched his mother as she dolloped mayonnaise and mustard on top of the perfectly-cubed potatoes in her shiny bowl. “Anyway, like I said, you need to rest. Besides, nobody’s gonna want any kind of salad for breakfast. I think Uncle Bud is getting something catered in.”
Nancy stirred the seasonings into the potato salad. “You know you want some of this good cookin’,” she teased. “Go look in the stove.”
Jamal turned on the oven light, cursed under his breath when it did not come on, and gently cracked the door to peer inside. “Ma, one of the first thing’s I’ll do when I get back is buy you a stove. This thing is so old, Methuselah’s momma probably baked the first loaf of bread in it.”
Nancy stopped stirring and frowned. “Boy, watch your language. Besides, nobody asked you to buy me a stove. Daddy had that put in here when he bought me this house. Now look in there like I said,” she admonished.
Nancy’s egg and bacon casseroles were heavenly and Jamal felt the water rise in his mouth. He shut the oven. “Uncle Bud’s gonna be mad. There’s enough casserole for 20 people in there, and I think he already paid.”
“You wanna clean this for me?” She had left a big dollop of salad on her stirring spoon and Jamal chewed his bottom lip as he took it. “Do I look like I care if Bud paid for anything? Nobody asked me what I wanted.” Nancy fussed as she ripped a gossamer piece of plastic wrap from the tattered box on the counter and covered the bowl of potato salad. “Don’t nobody want that old dried up diner food he bought.”
Jamal bucked his eyes at her and she shrugged.
“That’s what Bud always gets for family gatherings. Calls himself catering. That’s not catering,” she mumbled as she stacked the trays with olives, cheese, and salami to make room in the already-packed refrigerator and slid the potato salad bowl between savory macaroni salad and glistening Ambrosia.
Jamal looked at the spoon. No one made potato salad like his mother. She had shared a few of her precious recipes with him before he had moved away but her versions always came out better. He smiled at her and asked, “Why must you be so contrary, Ma?”
Nancy turned down the flame beneath her pressure cooker and moved across to the sink to pour water off the hardboiled eggs. As she tilted the steaming pot she said, “I need to keep busy.”
“It’s four in the morning, Ma. Ain’t that much busy in the world.”
“You didn’t say that when Daddy caught you sneaking back in the house that time you and Jimmy called yourselves clubbing all night. Y’all got real busy when he was ready to put you on punishment.” Nancy lifted the edge of her apron and pretended to tap dance. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the two of you think up lies so quick.”
Jamal laughed at his mother and the memory. He had been 18 and it felt like a lifetime ago when his dad had threatened to take his head off his shoulders if he ever disrespected the house by staying out past midnight ever again. He wondered who would chastise him now that his dad was dead.
“Jamal?” Nancy looked at him again over the tops of her glasses. “You all right?”
“I’m good, Ma,” he answered as casually as he could and fingered a foil-covered mound on the corner of the table. “Might there be cornbread rolls under here?”
Nancy beamed. “Of course.” Jamal peeled back a corner and carefully removed two rolls; Nancy always stacked them in a spiral and the ones he chose would not ruin the pattern. “Don’t you mess up my pattern, boy,” she chided out of habit.
“Tsk! You know I got it,” Jamal sucked his teeth and handed her a roll. “I know you got some warm butter. Let’s do this.” He found an empty bar stool; the rest were covered with trays of crackers and bowls filled with freshly-washed fruit.
Mother and son stood next to each other and savored the grainy rolls. Nancy wiped crumb-covered fingertips on her apron with a sigh. “I sure miss Daddy.”
“I know, Ma,” Jamal replied; he had no idea since this was his first experience with death but placing an arm around her shoulder, he tried to hug the sadness from his mother’s face. “Say, why don’t you go put your feet up? I’ll wash dishes right quick.”
“Thank you, son,” her voice trembled. She turned away to wipe a tear and Jamal looked out the window. “Jamal? You heard from Jimmy? Do you think he’ll be here?”
He frowned. “I don’t know, Ma. You know I went looking for him when I first got here. I gave a message to one of his associates,” he spat the word. “He knows, Ma. That’s all I can tell you.”
“You’re a good boy, Jamal,” Nancy said gently. She peered through the window into the yard. “At least the azaleas did well. You know Daddy loved azaleas.”
Jamal sank his hands into the sudsy water. “I know, Ma,” he offered with a smile, “I know.”
Bud’s grin spanned his fleshy face. “Come on in, Willy!” He bellowed around the cigar tucked wetly in the corner of his mouth and pawed the mortician into the house.
“Nancy! Willy’s here!”
“I’m back here!”
Bud gripped the other man’s shoulder and lowered his voice. “Willy, William, whatever.
Look, man, lemme talk to you.” Bud and William had been in high school together; it was no mystery as to who bullied whom. “You know my sister don’t have a lot of assets. I hope you gave her a square deal on this funeral.”
William stiffened “I need to speak to Mrs. Washington.” He stepped around Bud and followed his nose to the kitchen. “Nancy,” he said as took her hand and placed another of his business cards in it.
“Thank you, William.” Nancy juggled the card from hand to hand as she wiped each against her apron. “Just look at you: ‘Whipper Funeral Services’–I bet you made your father proud.”
William had taken over the family business right after college and continued as the seventh generation of Whippers in charge of final arrangements for most of the town.
She tucked the card in an apron pocket.
“Please,” she moved a tray of deviled eggs off a bar stool, “have a seat.”
“Thank you,” his eyes moved over plates of chicken, bowls of fruit, and assorted cakes and pies scattered across every tabletop, chair, and stool in the kitchen.”My but you’ve been busy,” he commented as Nancy handed him a biscuit and his stomach growled appreciatively. “Thank you; you make the best biscuits.”
She winked. “I always make a few extra just for you when we have socials at the church.”
He finished the biscuit in two bites and then looked her in the eye. “Are we all ready for today?”
“Doesn’t it look like it?” Nancy waved her hand around the kitchen and laughed. “Daddy would be happy, I think.”
William cleared his throat. “You mentioned that you wanted James as a pallbearer.”
“Where are my manners?” Nancy walked to a cabinet and opened the door, revealing rows of neatly arranged mugs. “Would you like some coffee? I just made a fresh pot.”
He shook his head.
“Everything all right up in here?” Bud asked as he shambled in, took a biscuit from a tray on the stool next to where William stood, and shoved it in his mouth. “You need any help, Nancy?”
“Bud! Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she said, handing him a napkin. “You are nothin’ but a big child. Get out–William and I have business, and it’s none of yours.”
He took two more biscuits and smiled. “Okay, okay. I just want to make sure Willy’s taking care of you right.”
“Bud, I hear the doorbell. It might be your catered breakfast.” He dashed from the kitchen as Nancy moved the tray of biscuits from the stool to the last clear place on the counter,beside the coffee pot, and then sat down.”I’m not sure James will be able to serve as a pallbearer,” she answered with a sigh.
“Right now we have Bud, Jamal, his friend Sam and three of Calvin’s lodge mates,”
William said gently. “We’ll be fine if James can’t make it.”
“I’m sure he’ll be along. You sure you don’t want any coffee?” William shook his head again. “Well,” Nancy sighed. “I guess this is it, huh?”
He held her hand gently; it was the first thing he learned how to do as a mortician.”We’ll take good care of Calvin.” He paused as he thought about how much fun he used to have with Nancy, Bud, and Calvin when they were kids and played in each other’s backyards.”Your husband was a very good man, Nancy.”
She smiled and wiped a tear. “You are a good man, William.”
“I’m glad you think so, Nancy.” He dropped his professional veneer for a moment as his own tears fell. He pulled a handkerchief from his inner pocket, blew his nose loudly, and said, “You always looked out for me, you know, with Bud when we were in school.”
She nodded. “Bud really likes you; that’s why he messes with you.” She commented as they walked to the kitchen door. “Thank you for everything, William. Is there anything else you need from me? Daddy did a good job putting his things in order but I don’t want to forget anything.”
“I have everything,” he answered. “The car will be here by 9:30 to carry you to the church and the viewing will start at 10.”
Nancy walked him to the door, said good-bye and closed the door behind him. Turning around, she stepped backwards as Stella had walked right up behind her.
“Here, honey,” her sister-in-law cooed. “I made you a plate.” She had pulled together a plate of fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, and sage sausage from Bud’s order.
“That’s okay, Stella. You know I’m not a fan of diner food.” Nancy swallowed a laugh as Bud scowled. Now Bud, I’m not sayin’ anything you didn’t already know,” she said, giggling. She turned to Odessa, Jamal, Cora-Lynn, Stella, and several other relatives. “There’s a casserole on the sideboard.” Everyone except Bud hurried into the kitchen.
Bud snorted. “Don’t nobody like your old-fashioned breakfast casserole. It’s nothin’ but leftovers anyway.”
“Why you lyin’, Bud?” Their older sister, Odessa, fussed as she returned with a heaping plate, a half-eaten biscuit on top. “Everybody loves Nancy’s casserole. Hers was the only one Mamma would eat.” She perched on the arm of a chair, swallowed the rest of the biscuit in one bite and continued talking. “And she hated that diner stuff you always get,” she added, licking her fingers
“I know that’s right!” Cora-Lynn, their youngest sister, piped up, sitting down on the chair beside Odessa. “And even if Nancy put every leftover in the house in her casserole, I bet it would be more moist than that cardboard you bought.” The two sisters erupted with laughter.
“Look, you all finish up and don’t make a mess in here!” Nancy ordered. “I’m going to get dressed. The car will be here soon and we need to be right. This is Daddy’s day.”
The other women stopped laughing and Cora-Lynn wiped tears from her eyes as Nancy walked toward the stairway.
Bud stepped to the table to pull the aluminum foil covers back over the food he had purchased. He picked up the plate he had left on the arm of his chair and bit into a slice of bacon that crackled across the silence.
“That bacon is so old, Aunt Jemima cooked it!” Odessa joked and the sisters broke into laughter again as Bud frowned.
“I know that’s right,” Nancy added and laughed despite herself as she started up the stairs.
Bud smacked Justin in the back of his head as he sank his ample butt into the last free chair in the living room. “How you gonna sit up in my sister’s house –”
“Don’t you mean ‘my lodge brother’s house’?” Justin shot back.
“Justin Spirts, don’t you start with me.” Bud shook his hand in the other man’s face. “How you gonna sit up in here and talk about my nephew like that? Jimmy’s got a few issues, but you got no right!”
Justin snorted. “Jimmy’s got more than issues. He’s out there on that stuff and you know it. That’s why he wasn’t at his daddy’s funeral.”
“He was, too. I saw him in the back of the church,” Odessa said. “Nancy said he walked to the cemetery from there.” She winked at Justin. “And the boy does have issues.”
Bud hefted his frame from the chair and stood up. “Odessa, you would take Spirts’ side anyway.”
They stopped talking as Nancy walked into the room. “What are y’all on about over here?”
“Bud was messin’ with Justin about–”
“Nothin’,” Bud interrupted. “We was just jaw-jackin’.”He knew Nancy would be angry if Odessa shared that they had been talking about Jimmy and his habits. “You know how Justin and the rest of those stuffy lodge boys are. I was tryin’ to get him to show me the handshake.
“Uh-hm,” Nancy looked him up and down. She suspected they had been talking about her oldest son but let it go; it was the wrong day for family to be at odds. She smiled.”How about James?” she said.”He was telling me how well he’s doing these days.”
“What’s he doing?” Odessa asked. She was always ready for something to gossip about.
“He’s working at one of those can and bottle recycle places. Some kinda manager or something.”
“Managin’ to sell cans and bottles to get them drugs, more like,” Justin snickered, balancing a forkful of potato salad. Bud elbowed Justin’s hand and the salad plopped on the edge of the plate.
Nancy frowned at them.”From the sounds of things, he’s doing better. You know that recession hit young men like him awful hard.”
“That only happened to people who were actually working, Ma,” Jamal added, slipping past her with a plate full of cookies, cake slices, and a large piece of sweet potato pie.
She swatted at him and he dodged her hand.”Where is he anyway? I didn’t even get to talk with him.”
“Don’t you speak about your brother that way, young man. Anyway, I made him a plate since he had to go. Can you believe they have him scheduled to work this afternoon?”
She crossed her arms tightly and hugged her elbows.”On the day of his Daddy’s funeral and they wouldn’t let him off. He had to be there,” she leaned around Jamal to look at the mantel clock, “at 3 so I gave him car fare.”
Sighs of disgust filled the room. Nancy looked at them in surprise. “What’s wrong with all of you?”
“Ma, Jimmy didn’t need car fare,” Jamal answered. “He’s not a manager. He hustled you.”
Nancy blinked. “Don’t talk that way about James. Don’t let me hear any of you talking that way. Daddy wouldn’t approve.”She frowned, turned, marched into the dining room, and smiled at the Reverend and William, who were deep in discussion.
Odessa shoved a last spoonful of the Ambrosia into her mouth. She swallowed, looked toward Nancy in the next room and whispered, “She might not think so but Calvin knew all about James. And no, he didn’t approve.” She looked at Bud and Justin and gave them both a dagger-eyed stare. “You two know how she is about that boy. Now leave it alone. Today isn’t about James, anyway.” She turned toward Jamal, who was sitting in the corner, and asked, “Jamal, is that your mamma’s lemon cake you got there? I gotta get me some of that before it’s gone!” She licked her fork, and clutching her plate, stood up, and left in search of another of her favorite desserts.
Nancy shook her head, wanting to block her son’s words about Jamal from her mind as she joined William and the Reverend as they stood near the punch bowl. William wiped the last of his chocolate cake from the corners of his mouth, and stood up straight.
“Nancy, how are you?” William asked. “I haven’t seen you sit still since everyone arrived back here from the cemetery. Have you eaten?”
She waved him off. “I can’t eat a bite just now, but I’m all right. I hope you’re both enjoying the food.”
Reverend Jones, Nancy’s sister Stella’s husband, shook his head. “Of course. You know I did.” He leaned in. “When you gonna teach your sister to cook like this?”
Nancy tapped him lightly on the arm. “Stella’s gonna get you for making fun of her cooking!”
“Ma. I need to talk to you.” Jamal stood by her side, touching her elbow.
“Not now, Jamal.”
She turned, saw the frown on his face, then looked past him and saw a police officer stood in the front doorway.
“It’s about Jimmy, Ma.”
Jamal took Nancy by the arm and guided her through the groups of family and friends, all quietly pushing food around their half-eaten plates.
“Mrs. Washington, I am so sorry to disturb you but there’s been an incident involving your son, James. I’m going to need you to come with me to the hospital.”
Nancy shrugged Jamal’s hand away and replied, “Officer, I don’t know if you are aware but we are celebrating my husband’s home-going today. Now why don’t you just rest yourself there — Bud, move over so the officer can sit down — and let me make you a plate. There’s plenty as you can see. I know James is fine. I gave him car fare to get to work just about a half-hour ago, so what is this all about?”
The officer touched the edge of his cap.”Thank you, ma’am but no. I can’t give you any additional information here and need you to come with me to the hospital. Your other son–Jamal?–said he would drive you.”
Nancy wiped her palms down the front of her apron and reaching around, untied the knot at the back.
“Cora-Lynn,” Nancy said, “get my purse from upstairs, would you? Stella, I didn’t say thank you when I was in the dining room so please give my thanks to your husband for the message today. I know Daddy would have been very happy. Bud, you leave Justin alone while I’m gone and Justin, be sure to tell the brothers how much I appreciate all they did. I’ll bring something nice around to the lodge next week as snacks for the meeting. And Odessa, make sure everybody gets some of this food to take home, especially the Reverend and William. And make sure Bertram doesn’t take all of the macaroni salad — tell him to leave some for other folks.”
Nancy glanced in the mirror next to the door and patted down a stray hair.
“I want that kitchen empty when I get back,” she continued. “But save some of those oxtails. I want to freeze them for James because they’re his favorite.”
As Nancy and Jamal followed the officer down the porch steps, Stella called out,
“Should I make you a plate too, Nancy?”
“No, that’s all right, Stella,” Nancy replied. “This is Daddy’s day. I’ll find something when we get back.” Nancy turned to the officer. “We’re going to the hospital?”
“Well,” she paused by her potted flowers next to the bottom step and grabbed a handful of daffodils and pansies.”If James has been hurt or something, I’m sure some flowers will brighten up his room. Don’t you think, Jamal?”
Jamal glanced at the officer, who shook his head slightly. “Sure, Ma. I’m sure that will be fine.”
“Of course it will.” Nancy gave Jamal and the officer a shaky smile as they walked toward the curb where Jamal’s rental car was parked. Turning to Jamal as he opened the car door, Nancy asked, “Did I tell you how much Daddy loved daffodils?”
“Yes, Ma,” Jamal said, “you sure did.”
“Homegoing Day” is part of the Pure Slush anthology, Feast, published in three parts: “Homegoing Day,” “A Visit from the Mortician,” and “After the Service”.
Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction www.starvingactivist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant. She reads more than she sleeps.
Andreé Robinson-Neal is a member of Andrea Fingerson’s Creative Writing Workshop at the Feldheym Library in San Bernardino.