I soaked in that tub until my fingers and toes were pruny and the water was tepid. It felt so good to sit in that water. I imagined myself as Joan Crawford or Greta Garbo, exotic and detached from the triviality of the mundane.
"Are you done yet? Mama said it's dinner time and to come your hair 'cause Granny Matkin's here." The urgency in Kenny's voice was gone. I figured he must've gone behind the garage, but all that didn't matter one bit.
Granny Matkin was having dinner with us tonight. My blood ran cold. I knew that Mama wanted me to run a comb through my hair, put a ribbon around my head, put a dress on and be on my best behavior. I threw a towel around me, ran to my room and shut the door behind me. My toes looked like gorgeous, glamorous gems that gleamed on my little braided rug. Even so, I knew I better get some socks on because Granny would not approve.
Now, my Granny Matkin was a tiger. She was about as formidable as a Grizzly Bear Mama against a pack of wolves. I was scared to death of her when I was little. She wore her thick black hair in a large bun behind her head. Her face was wrinkly and wide. I think of her now and I can see that she must have been a knockout when she was young. But on that hot day, she was the embodiment of a hungry bobcat, a thorny switch, just waiting to come across someone's backside.
I hurried and put on a clean dress. I figured Mama wouldn't mind, considering Granny was here. I found a pretty ribbon. I had never noticed how soft and satiny it looked until I stood there with my fancy feet. Kenny yelled up the stairs again and I knew I needed to fly.
I ran down the stairs and quickly sat at the table.
"Good evening, Virginia Min," said Granny Matkin. If she'd've cracked a smile, her face would have shattered into pieces.
"Hi, Granny." I sat up straight and looked up at Mama, who was placing the food on the table. She looked so pretty tonight and she had a soft, kindly look on her face. Kenny looked like he had been rolling around in dirt all day long, except for his face. It was brown, certainly, from the sun, but it was scrubbed clean.
"Let me see your fingernails, child," Granny told my brother. He sat straight and held out both hands, palms up. Granny pursed her lips and stuck her chin in the air. Kenny slumped a little and turned them over. His nails were short and they were black. "You go in the kitchen and scrub them good, you hear me?"
"Yes, Granny," he murmured and flew out of his seat. The food smelled so good. Mama must have known all along that Granny would be coming because we had a whole chicken, green beans and new potatoes. It was like a Sunday dinner during the week.
In the meantime Kenny plunked back in his chair, but straighted as he saw Granny across the table. Mama smiled and had just sat down when we heard a knock at the front door. She opened the door and I saw Pete Kauffman, who held his hat in his hands.
"Thank you, Evelyn. Good evening, Mrs. Matkin. Min. Kenny. I am sorry to disturb you at supper time." Pete looked down at his shoes, but he didn't leave and come back. He stood his ground, God bless him.
"Pete, you look hungry, won't you sit and join us? We have plenty tonight." Mama pulled out a chair for him to sit opposite her, in Daddy's chair. Granny cleared her throat and looked away. Pete just stood there.
"Well, now, go on and sit down, Peter Kauffman." Granny seemed to glare at him. Pete glanced up at her, nodded his head and sat. We all bowed our head and Mama said grace. I sure was glad that she said a quick prayer because I was ready to eat.
Even in that hot dining room, I was hungry and I ate my fill. We all did, Pete included. In fact, he ate like he'd never had seen food before he came in our house. I saw him catch himself after a third piece of chicken. He wiped his mouth and put his napkin down on his lap, his eyes still averted.
"Go on, now, Pete. Here's another piece." I couldn't believe my eyes, but Granny put a whole chicken breast on his plate and a heap of potatoes. He nodded and ate.
"Have you seen Harry?" Mama put a spoonful of carrots on her plate and ate one little medallion at a time.
"No, ma'am. I heard that he's on his way up to Effingham to see if he can find some farmwork there." Pete wiped his face and hands before he dug into that pile of creamy, mashed potatoes. "It's bad out there, Evy. I've been to every town and farm within 10 miles and I can't find--that is, I been trying real hard-"
Pete put his fork down and stared down in his lap. I must have been staring at him because Granny kicked me under the table.
"I'm sure you have been. Work is scarce right now. When the harvest comes in, I'm certain you'll find something." Granny sat ramrod straight in her chair, her chin hard as granite.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry--that is, I've already eaten so much." Pete pulled his chair back and stood, still looking at the floor. Mama quietly withdrew into the kitchen.
"Mama, can I have more potatoes?" Kenny asked.
"No, you may not. That's all you've eaten and your Mama spent all that time preparing all this good food. Have some turnip greens." Granny plopped down a spoon of greens on Kenny's plate. He sat back in his chair and frowned; he'd have to eat the whole thing before he was excused from the table. "Virginia Min, please take that plate into the kitchen for your Mama."
I got out of the chair and to my horror I looked down and saw I was barefoot. I grabbed the serving plate and walked into the kitchen just as fast as I could. Mama was putting food into a paper bag. I think it was bread from the morning.
"Granny told me to give this to you, Mama." I held the plate up so that she couldn't see my feet.
"Evvy?" Granny called from the next room. "I suppose you should give him a piece of that pie I brought. You could wrap in paper for him."
Mama smiled, cut that pie quick, wrapped it up and put in that bag. It would be a nice meal for tomorrow. I put in the another chicken breast and we closed the top. Mama handed him the bag and touched his arm.
"You take this. It'll keep for tomorrow. Oh, and Kenny, run and get an apple for Pete, would you please?"
Kenny darted into the kitchen and I know why. It was to get away from the greens and Granny Matkin. Granny sat quietly in her seat and ate her greens, a little bit at a time. Pete, in the meantime, accepted the bag, but never looked up. I saw tear drop from his face and on to our floor. He was so embarrassed and hungry. Kenny bounded back in and dropped the apple on the floor. It rolled by my foot.
"Mama, Min hurt all her toes. They're bleeding," he cried, pointing at my feet.
Now then. I love my brother. He's one of the best men I'll ever know but so help me, at that moment, I could have smashed a brick in his brown, freckled face.
Everyone was looking at my feet. Granny Matkin got up to take a look.
"Virginia Min Stevenson. Painted toes. What is next, child? Evvy, I don't know, but you are too indulgent with your children. Nothing good will come of this." Granny gave me a withering look. I looked up at my mother and her eyes were about as big as our plates. Pete, too, stared at me with an open mouth, shocked at my depravity. So I did what any nine year old would do. I burst into tears, ran upstairs into my room and slammed the door shut.
I wept on my bed. I sobbed into my pillow and thought I would never be able to show my face in public again. I would live upstairs in my house, a spinster, for the rest of my life, while that old buzzard of a brother of mine would become a bastion of commerce and live in a big mansion with bushels of money. After some time, the mattress sagged by me and I felt a warm hand on my back.
"Virginia Min, I wish you would have told me. I wouldn't have yelled. Well, now, I might've but not as much as you think." There was a smile in her voice but I didn't look at her. I laid my head on my arms and involuntarily sobbed.
"Virginia Min, do you know what your Granny did when I cut my hair? She was mad as a hornet and told me that I was a brazen hussy and that nothing good would come from me getting my hair bobbed." Mama was laughing. "Granny means well. She's, uh, set in her ways. Now I don't approve of little girls like you painting your toes. And I can only guess that you girls took that paint without permission, right?"
How in the world did she know? I didn't say a word. I got up and my arms were all red and marked from my candlestick spread. I was ready to got outside and get a switch. Tears streaked down my face. Mama looked at me with a face full of love and I melted into her arms. She kissed my head, took my hand and led me to her room. She turned on her little light and showed me a little perfume bottle.
"Grandpaw Matkin gave this to your granny when they were young and newlywed. She passed this on to me when I got married, but-" Mama whispered in my ear- "I don't care for it. Maybe you will." She opened the top and held it to my nose.
The fragrance was heavy and exotic. In my head I saw visions of lipstick, Hollywood and Garbo. I liked it. Mama let me put a little on my finger and I dabbed it behind my ears.
"You go downstairs and give your Granny a hug and kiss. It's time for bed. You've had quite a day."
I kissed her on both her cheeks and ran down the stairs. Kenny's plate still had the greens on it. Granny was sitting at the table playing solitaire. She said nothing, didn't even acknowledge me; she gripped a card in her hand and stared like a hawk. I jutted out my chin, just like her and went right over to her and hugged her.
She put down the card and hugged me back, tight. I was so surprised that I kissed her cheek, delicate and soft like crepe paper.
"You smell right nice, Virginia Min. Good night." She kissed me roughly and went back to her game.
On the floor by our radio, Kenny had dropped Mr. Winkie. Mr. Winkie was his bear and he could not sleep without it. In fact, I could hear him whining and crying in his room. I thought about dropping it into the trash. I thought of taking scissors and cutting each limb off in front of him while he watched. I even thought of putting through the butcher's meat grinder. That'd teach him. I grabbed Mr. Winkie and walked upstairs. Mama was coming down. She stopped me and kissed me on my head one more time.
So much had happened that night. Everything would be different in the morning. And the same, a little too.
"Min, have you seen Mr. Winkie?" He sobbed, a lonesome, lonely sob. I remembered how upset I was early that evening. I remembered how sweet and kind Mama was to me.
I took Mr. Winkie and I threw him at my brother as hard as I could. He protested and called for Mama. I went in my room and slammed the door shut.