Love, With Gravy
Even in the best of marriages, there come the inevitable periods of trial. For Essie and me, we seemed to be mostly immune to the little sorts of disagreements and disappointments that can mount up over time. The little drops of acid that can erode even the strongest relationships till one day you go from “they were made for each other” to “they seemed so happy. If they can’t make it, who can?” In eighteen years of marriage, we’d never once argued (which isn’t quite accurate, but I’ll get to that in a moment) and we’d managed to avoid the sort of careless, unguarded moments where an unkind word can carve out the heart as cleanly and dispassionately as a surgeon’s scalpel.
Then came the chicken livers.
First, a bit of backstory. I say that Essie and I had never argued, and that’s not quite accurate. Essie had an Irish temper to match her carrot orange hair. But the best part of the woman I had loved for three-quarters of my life was the fact that her temper rose In one, huge, terrible gale, blew itself out, and was gone. When I screwed up, Essie got as mad as she was going to get right there on the spot of the foul. She didn’t stew on it, she didn’t let it fester, she didn’t save it for a more opportune moment.
She blew her anger out all at once, and it was done. And once she was done, that was the end of it. The next time I screwed up, which was far more often than I cared to admit (particularly in the first decade of our marriage, when I remained resolutely convinced that our anniversary was on July 24th and her birthday was on May 19th, both of which were off by a week), I didn’t have to hear a litany of my every mistake up to that point. All I had to do was wait out the storm, keep my mouth shut, and sincerely apologize for my misdoings once the maelstrom had largely subsided.
For my part, I came from a long line of Stoic hillbillies. Our philosophy was that of all the trouble and sorrow in the world, 99% of it didn’t concern us. Of the 1% that did directly concern us, there was only .001% we actually cared about. As long as no one messed with that .001%, there was no point in getting upset over much of anything. It made Essie and me a nearly perfect match, and left us the last couple in Branscomb’s Mill of our age who’d married their high school sweethearts and were still going strong. Paul and Dana Mather were still technically married, but were only staying together until the very minute their youngest daughter left home for JMU in the spring.
Then, one night, I got a taste for Essie’s Grandma Myrtle’s fried chicken livers. Grandma Myrtle (“Call me Myrt”) was one of the last of the old-time mountain women, born and raised in Mingo County, West Virginia. She was a walking encyclopedia of Appalachian folkways, particularly gifted as a seamstress and quilter, and even more so as a cook. She had the ability to transform the simple mountain cookery of the remote coalfields into something very near art. When Essie’s mother passed away, just before her senior year of high school, Myrt came to stay with Essie and her father to help them through the difficult period. Coming from a food-centric culture, her first priority was to ensure that a home cooked meal was on the table every evening and that it was eaten together as a family. More often than not, that included me, even though I was still just the “boyfriend.”
Now, my mother was an excellent cook. Well-schooled in Appalachian cookery, she had grown up in a coal camp called Capri, West Virginia. Don’t bother looking for it on the map, it doesn’t exist anymore. Capri, as you might imagine, had a rather significant Italian population, experienced miners from southern Italy who had come to West-by-God back in the 1920s to seek their fortunes in the Land of Opportunity. Mom’s father, Giuseppe “Joe” Lombardi, came over in 1923 with his younger brothers, Vittorio and Salvatore. Joe and Vittorio were stout, tough men who had been working in the mines since they were children, literally. Joe went underground when he was eight, after his father was killed in a Mafia vendetta, as a way to feed his family. Vittorio followed two years later, when he was also eight. Only Salvatore, a weak and sickly child, avoided the mines. He stayed home and helped their mother with the cooking and taking care of the family’s small menagerie of goats, pigs and chickens.
When they came to America, the brothers followed some relatives of theirs from back home into the mountains and settled in Capri. Joe married a beautiful Scots Irish mountain flower, my grandmother Jenny. Joe and Jenny begat my mother, and nine other children. Two, Ronnie and Joe, Jr., were killed in Korea. Mom’s sister Flora died in a horrific car crash on her fifteenth birthday. After her other three brothers, Alfonse, John, and Freddie, were killed in a mine cave-in, Grandpa and Grandma came to believe that Capri was cursed, and sent their two youngest daughters to live with their uncle Salvatore, who had traveled to Branscomb’s Mill in the 1930s in search of a particular grind of flour for his breads and pasta. He met a lovely mill worker named Constance and in short order, married her and opened Branscomb Mill’s first Italian restaurant and pizzeria. It was there Mom met Dad, a stocky mechanical genius who was the first non-Italian she ever met who liked anchovies.
Mom’s cooking was equal parts Appalachian and Calabrese. She made a mean pot of navy beans seasoned with her own homemade pepperoni. And I didn’t have storebought pasta until I was twelve, when my first crush invited me over to her house for dinner. Her mother’s spaghetti, overcooked and tasteless Mueller’s vermicelli slathered with a jar of Ragu, effectively extinguished my enthusiasm for the poor girl as surely as if I’d caught her picking her nose and eating it. Don’t feel too sorry for her, though. That summer, she received an extended visit from the Puberty Fairy and thereafter had no trouble finding boys perfectly willing to eat mushy pasta with jarred sauce. Myrt’s cooking, though, was in another class entirely. Working with a limited palate of ingredients, she could coax flavors from the simplest of meals that seemed almost impossible. And nowhere was this artistry more on display than her fried chicken livers.
Lowly scraps of offal were transformed in Myrt’s seemingly magical cast iron pan that “came over on the Mayflower,” as she used to say. They were light, tender, not too gamey, and surprisingly not greasy in spite of the fact that were cooked in pure lard seasoned with country ham scraps. She enrobed them in a rich, deep brown gravy that didn’t taste like anything else I’d ever had. And she only made it to accompany the chicken livers. The only innovation she added to the dish was when she discovered the miracle of sautéed sweet Vidalia onions, and took the flavor to a whole new level with a layer of them just under the gravy.
It all seemed relatively simple, fairly straightforward. Particularly to someone like me whose culinary skills were pretty much confined to the outdoors and involved either the charcoal grill or the barbecue pit Dad and I built in the one patch of our back yard that Essie had ceded to my obsessive pursuit of perfect Eastern North Carolina barbecue. So I didn’t think a thing of it when Essie asked me what I’d like to have to the next evening’s dinner and I replied, “Your Grandma’s famous chicken livers.” If I’d have been paying closer attention at that moment, I’d have seen the dark shadow cross her face.
Though it had not always been the case, Essie enjoyed cooking. In recent years, she’d developed a love of TV cooking shows, and trying new recipes. Early in our marriage, she was intent on maintaining the tradition of family dinner, but the complex alchemy of cooking somehow eluded her. She had grown up somewhat of a latchkey kid, her surgeon father kept long hours at the hospital and her social-climbing mother devoted more time to preparing platters of fancy canapés for Junior League meetings than she did to so much as fixing so much as a peanut butter sandwich for her own daughter. Until Myrt came to stay when Essie was 17, she had pretty much subsisted on canned soup, grilled cheese sandwiches (which she still enjoys with molten globs of processed American cheese and mayonnaise instead of butter), and the occasional take-out pizza from Uncle Sal’s.
Essie loved her grandmother’s cooking, not just because of its magical flavors, but because it was an expression of the love that it represented. She understood instinctively that, in Myrt’s culture, food was the currency of emotion. And as long as Grandma made it, Essie would have been just as happy with a breakfast of Aunt Jemima pancakes with Log Cabin syrup as she would a plate of expertly prepared biscuits and gravy with farm-fresh eggs and bacon that came from a animals that actually had names.
While Essie hung on Myrt’s every word when it came to old mountain wisdom or the intricate craft of quilt making, when it came to Myrt’s culinary secrets, my beloved girl remained totally mystified when Myrt took a pile of random and seemingly inedible things and made a delicious meal out of them. The act of cooking for someone
you cared about was the real gift of self; everything else was gravy. I only wish I’d understood this simple truth before I ever opened my mouth about the chicken livers. I came home the next evening with dinner waiting on the table. Essie looked pensive, uncertain, which was very rare for her. She was always composed and confident, particularly when she was in her comfort zone. Tonight, she clearly was not. In and of itself, it was a perfectly decent meal. The livers were slightly over-cooked and too salty, but edible. The gravy was canned chicken gravy, which I pretended not to notice. There were no onions.
“How is it?” she asked, nervously.
“It’s fine, babe.” I said, and she knew immediately I was not quite being truthful. It was the same flat, stock reply I used either when I honestly didn’t care one way or the other, like when “we” were picking out new paint for the bedroom at Home Depot; or when I was displeased with something but didn’t feel like starting an argument, like when she celebrated her thirtieth birthday by dying her wonderful Halloween pumpkin orange hair a horrid shade of platinum blonde.
“But it’s not Grandma’s.” she said.
“Well, no. But I’m sure you’ll do better next time.”
In the 25 years we’d known each other, I’d gotten on Essie’s nerves more times than I could count. I’d mildly disappointed her hundreds of times. I’d completely pissed her off on, unfortunately, more occasions than I’d like to admit. But I had never actually hurt her, until now. Essie had always been very open with me, never expecting me to read her mind or interpret her emotions like a Bletchley Park cryptographer trying to crack the Enigma machine. She had always been very direct and said precisely what she meant, even if it was sometimes delivered at the top of her lungs. But in this moment, I saw an expression of pain and disappointment on her face that I’d never seen before. And I did exactly the wrong thing; I shut my mouth and sat there in silence, not knowing quite what to expect. I got the one thing I didn’t expect—tears. In nearly three decades, I’d certainly seen Essie cry before. But this was the first time I knew that I had caused it.
I sat there at the table for a while, listening to Essie sobbing softly in the kitchen, feeling helpless. I wanted to go to her, hold her, make the tears stop. But I didn’t know how. I didn’t quite understand what I’d done, and it was the first time in our lives that I had absolutely no idea what was going on inside of the woman I truly believed to be the better half of me. And in that terrible evening, when I could feel every tear she shed landing on my heart like acid, I don’t know that she could have put into words what had wounded her so deeply.
I would discover later that, to me, it was an edible but unremarkable dinner; to her, it was a cold repudiation of her best efforts, this expression of love she’d put heart and soul into for me. It was a deep and personal rejection, a reminder that even after decades of total and unconditional love, the pain and loneliness of her childhood was never far from the surface. Her emotionally distant father was accessible to her only through a shared love of football, and then only for six months of the year. Her ambitious mother, ashamed of her impoverished coal camp upbringing—the very same heritage my mother shared, and carried proudly—kept her disappointing daughter at arm’s length after Essie refused the trappings of upper middle-class existence and chose the primitive folkways of the grandmother her mother had all but disowned. In that instant at the dinner table, Essie was transported back to the day she made her first quilt, a lap blanket-sized throw, and presented it to her mother as a Valentine’s Day gift.
The look of disappointment and disapproval on her mother’s face came back to Essie just then, and hung like icicles on my flat, heartless words. Almost all successful married couples have a rule about never going to be bed angry. But we’d never been truly angry with each other in our lives. And we weren’t now. I was angry with myself, for the unfathomable hurt I’d caused her even if I didn’t understand what I’d done, and Essie was just plain hurt. I’d never seen her this deeply wounded; not when her mother died at thirty-eight from an unexpected brain aneurism, not when Grandma Myrtle passed away from a long bout with cancer the morning after Essie and I were married by a Justice of the Peace in her hospital room, not when she finally managed to get pregnant after years of trying and miscarried after four months.
For the first time in our marriage, Essie went to bed without so much as saying good night, and without the goodnight kiss we never neglected unless one of us wasn’t there. I stayed up till almost midnight, sitting in in the den in silence, praying for the answers to come to me. When they didn’t, I made the long, dreadful march up the stairs and to our bedroom. I undressed in the dark, with just a sliver of moonlight shining through the blinds that illuminated Essie’s silhouette under the covers. This woman, whom I had viewed from the moment I first set eyes upon as being of seemingly infinite inner strength, now seemed very small and vulnerable.
I slid softly into bed and reached over to place my hand on her stomach, which even in the depths of sleep usually brought her across the expanse of empty mattress between us to my side of the bed. Tonight, even in a deep and troubled sleep, her instinct was to roll over on her side with her back to me where I could no longer reach her. I laid there, unable to sleep until sheer exhaustion set in, through the longest night of my life. Essie was gone the next morning when I woke up. I assumed, or desperately hoped, she’d gone to her Appalachian crafts store downtown to seek refuge from the unbearable tension between us that nothing in our marriage had thus far equipped us to deal with. I got ready for work and left way too early, stopping at Hardee’s for a biscuit and a cup of coffee and eating it glumly at my office desk as I waited for the rest of the executive staff to come in so that we could spend another eight hours pretending we actually ran the place.
I called her cell phone around 11:00, but got no answer. This wasn’t necessarily unusual, since she would not answer her phone when she was with a customer. I tried again after lunch, and it went straight to voicemail. I did not begin to worry, though, till I called the shop’s phone and got the “closed” message. I then called Hannah Weston, who ran a little photographic art gallery right next to Essie’s shop, and Hannah said that the shop hadn’t been open all day. She hadn’t seen Essie, and she asked me if everything was okay. I wanted to say that everything was fine, but all I could manage was, “I don’t know.”
As I was leaving work, just after 6:00, I received a text from Essie. It read, simply, “Gone to WVA. I’ll call when I’m ready.” I texted her back, “I love you. I’m sorry. Please be safe.” Her return message said only, “I will.” It was only Wednesday. I went home and sat in the den as I had the night before, till nearly midnight, and finally had to force myself to go to that cold and empty bed. I slept fitfully, too tired to stay awake even as my thoughts grew increasingly darker. What if I’ve caused a hurt I can’t fix? What if she’s gone for good? What if she does come back, but our marriage is never the same again? It seemed almost impossible for me to comprehend that 18 years of the perfect marriage to the perfect woman could have been so deeply damaged by something as seemingly inconsequential as a plate of chicken livers.
The next day, I was useless at work. Not that it mattered; as a senior vice president, my job was primarily to agree wholeheartedly with whatever the big bosses in Minnesota said and to formulate impressive-sounding action plans to increase productivity that I knew in advance would never be implemented. For this, I made $75,000 a year and had acquired enough AgriTech stock options to ensure a very comfortable retirement. But without Essie to come home to, for however long that might be, none of it mattered. I sat alone in that house in the evenings, a relatively modest three bedroom two bath Colonial that suddenly felt like Charles Foster Kane’s Shangri-La at the end—cold, cavernous, and empty. Before I left work Thursday afternoon, I called HR and told them I was taking a personal day on Friday. No questions were asked. Friday morning, after another restless night in that empty bed and without so much as a text from Essie, I threw an overnight bag in the Explorer and headed across the border towards the deep mountain strongholds of the southern coalfields. I drove first to Beckley, my mother’s de facto hometown, where her parents moved after her dad retired from the mines with black lung. He died when I was eight, and I only remembered Grandpa Lombardi as a broken old man, wheeling a tank of oxygen with him everywhere he went, who nonetheless would sit out on the front porch in the evenings and teach me a few words of Italian and sneak a cigarette or two (which he let me roll for him). My grandmother passed away when I was 15, from the cancer that seemed all but inevitable in our part of Appalachia. I hadn’t been to Beckley in nearly ten years, since my Aunt Christina took her spin on the Wheel O’ Cancer and died at
the same age my mother is now.
I hadn’t intended to stop in Beckley when I left Virginia, but seeing the old town made me a bit nostalgic. We used to visit Grandpa and Grandma every other weekend or so when I was a kid. I still had one aunt, Mom’s oldest sister Betty Jean, who was in her 70s now, and a small handful of cousins spread throughout Raleigh County. I could get by without seeing my cousins, especially my cousin Sarah, who was officially the first real live naked female I ever saw when—for reasons known only to her—she took me skinny-dipping with some of her friends. To this day, twenty-five years later, Sarah still looks at me strangely every time we see each other. But I did feel obligated to stop by and see Aunt Betty Jean.
Betty Jean was the “money” side of the family. She had married, at 16, to an ambitious young car salesman named Wentzel “Went” Werth, who ended up owning the classiersounding Wentworth Motors. He built it into the largest Ford dealership in southern West Virginia, leaving her very well off when he took his spin on the Wheel O’ Cancer 15 years ago. The last I heard, she still got a brand new candy apple red Mustang every year since she fell in love with the very first 1964 ½ pony car. And the last I heard, she still had a lead foot and a moonshine runner’s skill, giving local Toyota-tuning street racers a run for their money when she felt like it.
Sure enough, there was a brand new 2013 Mustang GT sitting in the driveway of her wonderfully tacky “mountaineer mansion,” decorated inside and out in a manner befitting the vision a poor girl from a coal camp imagined rich people would live. The two story brick house wasn’t too much bigger than our house in Branscomb’s Mill, but it had been “accessorized” thoroughly. Set far enough up a hillside to make sure everyone could see it, with rows of fake Georgian columns lining the front porch, silly gold-painted plaster lions on either side of the entrance, an awkwardly-placed concrete fountain that tipped at a slight fifteen degree angle and caused water to splash over the side and had over the years formed a permanent little erosion down the sloping front yard to the storm drain that looked like the world’s smallest creek.
I hadn’t seen Aunt Betty Jean since Uncle Wentzel’s funeral. I was three years out of college, and still carrying my football playing weight of 275 pounds. I’ll never be skinny, but for my long-term health and my arthritic knees, I now kept a more manageable weight of 210-215 pounds. The very first thing she said to me, after fifteen years, was, “Good Lord, boy, you’re wasting away to nothing. Is that skinny little Irish wife of yours feeding you?” She took me by the hand and led me through the what I would imagine a model home from the 70s would look like if you managed to find one untouched by the intervening decades. She took me straight back to the kitchen and removed a foil covered pan from the refrigerator.
“I just made this last night.” she said, removing the foil to reveal almost a whole pan of lasagna. “I still can’t quite get the hang of cooking for one.”
She didn’t ask me if I wanted any, or how much I’d like. She grabbed a spatula and began piling a huge portion on a plate. At no point did she tell me to “say when.” She placed a paper towel over the heaping mass of food and popped it into the microwave. She then plated a smaller portion for herself, lest I get the impression that she expected me to share. And even though it was just before 11:00 in the morning, she hauled out an unlabeled jug of red wine and poured two ample measures in large juice glasses.
“It ain’t too early for company.” she smiled, raising her glass and tossing back a healthy gulp. I took a more judicious swig, knowing that whatever I drank she would immediately replace. “I get this from a boy down in Crab Orchard, makes it the way they did back in the old country. Daddy would have loved it, God rest him. Two or three glasses, and he’d have pulled out the mandolin and started singing in Italian.”
As we sat and talked (and ate and drank), I remembered the way things were back when I was a kid and we’d go visiting relatives. The very first thing they’d do, no matter what time of day it was, would be to fix you something to eat. As soon as you came in the door, the women headed into the kitchen to fix whatever they had to share. They would not accept any excuses, either, no “we just ate” or “we’re having dinner at Mom and Dad’s in a couple of hours.” You simply were not leaving without eating something. It just wasn’t done. You might as well walk in, pee on the rug, and leave without saying a word; that would be somehow less insulting.
I remembered Mom and Dad planning how to order our visits, not by distance or time, but by how much we could eat. First would always be my Great-Aunt Mitzi, Vittorio’s widow. Even though she was well into her 80s when I was a little kid, she still kept a garden that was the envy of everyone in a five county radius. That meant plenty of fresh vegetables, which you could eat a host-pleasing portion of and not feel stuffed. Next would be Aunt Catherine, the only one of the Lombardi girls who never took an interest in cooking. She always had tons of cold cuts in her refrigerator, though, and we could get by with a relatively modest ham sandwich. Then, on to Mom’s cousin Frank, who was like a brother to her after her own brothers were killed. He was a “confirmed bachelor,” in the days before anyone could bring themselves to use the word gay, and he made these awesome assortments of Italian pastries and had a really fancy espresso machine with which he would make us cappuccinos (although, truth be told, it was probably closer to frothy hot chocolate for me and my little sister, Maggie).
The last stop was always either Aunt Betty Jean’s, known for her stomach-stretching baked pastas, or Aunt Antonia’s, known for dry curing Italian hams and sausages and serving them in copious antipasto platters that were impossible to resist. Aunt Antonia wasn’t really a blood relation, but Mom’s family had taken her in after her own parents were killed in a house fire, along with her two younger siblings. Antonia escaped the blaze because she was in the hospital with pneumonia. As long as I knew her, the fear of fire never left her. There were no candles or matches in her house, and she was the only relative I knew who had an electric stove rather than gas. Even then, she only cooked when it was absolutely necessary. Not that anyone minded. The bounty of cured meat she put out for company was more than enough to satisfy. If, by the end of your rounds, you were somehow still hungry, you’d honestly wonder if you’d missed a stop.
I left Aunt Betty Jean’s at about 12:30, full as a tick and fortunate not to be intoxicated. I’d managed to nurse that one glass of wine the whole time, by taking tiny sips and keeping the glass hidden from her view behind the napkin holder. Aunt Betty Jean had one foot in the bucket when I left her sitting on the back porch, singing loudly in Italian-sounding gibberish to the family of ducks that had taken over her koi pond. She told me
that her maid, Marisol, came in at 2:00 (“she’s a Mexican” the daughter of an immigrant whispered, as if it were some shocking secret, even though we were the only two people around). I expected that poor Marisol would have her hands full for the rest of the evening.
Now came the hard part of the trip; no more interstate, just winding mountain roads fraught with danger. Some stretches were so close to the mountain on one side that you couldn’t stick your hand out the window for fear of losing it on the jagged rocks. And nothing but sheer cliff on the other side that promised an unsurvivable plunge
should you be so unlucky as to jump the wholly inadequate guardrail. Slow, hulking coal trucks seemed to appear out of nowhere, and always in the most inopportune places. Daredevil teenagers who had grown up running these roads took foolish chances, passing on double yellow lines and slinging their road-ragged junkers through kiss-yourass curves at tire-squealing speeds.
I made it to Mingo County at a little after 4:00. The only place I knew how to get to without Essie to guide me was Myrt’s old house, in a former coal camp nestled in a narrow little valley between two imposing mountainsides. It was now occupied by her youngest son, Ole, and his wife. His first wife left him and their three boys for an insurance agent in Pineville, just three months after the birth of their youngest child. Since then, he had gotten remarried to a salty-tongued, Harley-riding former exotic dancer whose name was either Beverly or Bubbles, depending on how many Coors Lights she’d had. Their boys had all joined the Army, two of them had graduated college using their G.I. Bill, and none of them had ended up in the mines or in jail. Ole and Beverly/Bubbles carried that as a point of pride.
Ole was a bear of a man, prone to giving rib-crushing hugs to those he liked and vicegrip handshakes to those he didn’t. I got a hug. Even though I’m not as big as I used to be, I’m still not a small man, but he hugged me like a child hugging a doll baby and carried me effortlessly into the house. I half expected him to carry me around with him the whole time, but he kindly put me down in the walk-in closet-sized living room to give Beverly/Bubbles a chance to administer one of her famous hugs, expertly timed to go on just long enough to make everyone in the room just slightly uncomfortable or make you feel like you should slip a folded fiver into the pocket of her skin-tight Levi’s.
As expected, Beverly/Bubbles disappeared back into the kitchen to start fixing a meal, but not before bringing Ole and me a couple of beers. Each. Ole had already downed one before I even got my first one open. We sat down and Ole grabbed the TV remote, turning the sound down but not turning the TV completely off.
Marshall was playing Towson State, and Ole had attended Marshall on a football scholarship back in the 70s, in the aftermath of the tragic plane crash that had killed almost the entire Thundering Herd team. He only lasted a couple of years, till a combination of injuries and the pressure of the situation (“You felt like you were carrying
a dead man on your back everywhere you went” he once told me, after quite a few beers) sent him back home again. His talents as a stonemason, and his lingering fame as a high school football standout, were sufficient to keep him out of the mines. Still, he never missed a Marshall game on TV, even if he couldn’t quite bring himself to set foot in Huntington again. He would always carry a piece of the Herd with him, even if it usually caused him more pain than pride.
“I s’pose you’re here after Essie.” he said, his face turning stern and solid.
“Well, she come here Wednesday evening, stayed the night. Seemed real upset, but didn’t feel up to talking ‘bout it. Figured you two must’ve had a pretty bad ‘un. Something cut her deep. I ain’t never knowed Essie not to speak what’s on her mind.”
“Where is she now?” I asked.
He leaned forward, stretching out his muscular shoulders and seemed to expand to twice his already intimidating size. “Suppose’n you tell me what happened between you two, and I’ll decide whether or not I know the answer to that question.”
“I’ll be honest with you, Ole, I don’t quite know myself. Monday, she asked me what I wanted for dinner the next day, and I told her I had a taste for your mother’s chicken livers. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, you know? I figured Essie had all of Myrt’s old recipes. So the next day, Essie made chicken livers and, well, I mean, they weren’t bad…”
“But they weren’t Mother’s, neither.”
“Did you tell her they weren’t no good?”
“No. Well, at least, I didn’t feel like I did. I just said that I was sure she’d do better next time. Trying to be encouraging.”
“Don’t no woman want to hear she don’t measure up, particularly when she’s being told she don’t hold a candle to the one woman who meant the whole world to her.” Beverly/ Bubbles hollered from the kitchen. The house was so small, one couldn’t help but eavesdrop.
“That’s a wise woman there, bud. You best listen to her.” Ole said, pointing a thumb back towards the kitchen. “And you ought to know better than to criticize a woman’s cooking. Particularly a Southern woman’s cooking, and especially a mountain woman’s cooking.”
“I’d a give the rest of them leftovers to you right upside your head.” Beverly/Bubbles offered. And I didn’t have a single doubt that she would have.
“I didn’t mean to be critical. It’s just…I mean, you know how good your mother’s chicken livers were. I figured that, with everything she’d taught Essie, you’d think that she told her all her cooking secrets, too.”
There was a long silence, but for the low, almost unintelligible noise coming from the television and the sound of something frying in the kitchen. Ole’s brow was furrowed, and he appeared to be thinking very hard about what to say next.
“My Daddy taught me everything he knew about being a stonemason. He had this dream about one day walking out of the mines and spending the rest of his days in the sunshine, me and him, in business together. Only, it never quite turned out for us. But after Daddy taught me all he knew, it didn’t take me long to learn the rest on my own. It wasn’t long before I was beyond him. I was carvin’ statues when the best he could do was one of them E-gyptian obelisks. Now, he’d brag on me to all his friends, ‘bout how talented I was and how he taught me ever’thing I knew. But he’d never say a word of praise to my face. He was embarrassed, ‘cause he knew I’d outdone him. That’s a hard thing for a man to face.
“Now, you notice that chair you’re sitting in? In fact, all the furniture in this room? Daddy made ever’ stick of it. That chair you’re sitting in is nigh on sixty years old, and solid as the day it was made. And I’ll guarantee you they ain’t a drop of glue or a single nail or screw anywhere on it. You know why this house is full of furniture Daddy made, but not a piece one that I made?”
“Why?” I asked.
“’Cause I can’t make a piece of furniture for shit. Daddy taught me all he knew about
woodworking, same as he did about stonemasonry. One of ‘em took, one of ‘em didn’t.
Same thing happened to Essie. Mother knew by the time Essie was a teenager that
she’d done passed her by when it came to sewing. Mother was good, but Essie was
special; she could do things Mother couldn’t even think of. But when it came to the
kitchen, that’s where Mother had not only a lifetime of experience, but a gift that, try as
she might, she just couldn’t give to Essie. Mother had been cooking at least two meals
a day since she was in pigtails, and she’d learned to make do with what she had and
keep everybody satisfied. Combine that with the fact that she just plain loved to cook,
and to cook for those she loved, and that’s a hard mark for anyone to reach.”
Just then, Beverly/Bubbles came in bearing two plates heaping with food. A simple meal
of pork chops, fried potatoes, pinto beans, turnip greens and cornbread. She returned
to the kitchen and came back with her own plate and a beer, placed them on a TV tray,
and joined us. Ole bowed his head and gave thanks, and everyone dug in.
“I feel for Essie, I do.” said Beverly/Bubbles, cracking open her beer and taking a
healthy swig. “I never learned to cook when I was a girl. My daddy was in jail, and my
mama was always out whoring around. I grew up making myself boxes of macaroni and
cheese, or eating whatever anyone else in the trailer park was willing to share. Once I
got out on my own, I was always working in clubs and making good money, so I ate out
all the time. But let’s face it, time ain’t kind. Especially to a woman. Hell, nowadays, I
ain’t got anything that anybody but Ole wants to see. I was out on my fat old ass the day
I got my first wrinkle. So I got a job waitressing at Waffle House, honest work with good
tips, but not as good a tips as I used to get when these 34-Cs was still looking straight
ahead. And I learned some basic cooking skills while I was there. So when I met Ole, I
could put a meal on the table, but nothin’ like Mama Myrt coulda done.
“Now, Mama Myrt took a shine to me, ‘cause she hadn’t lived no easy life neither. She
took me under her wing, showed me a lot of things. She didn’t have no recipes, she
never wrote nothing down, best she could do was show you and maybe give some
advice. And some things, her own little personal touches, she kept to herself. I learned
to salt and pepper the pork chops before dredging ‘em in flour, but it took me years to
figure out to add a pinch of sage with the salt and pepper to get ‘em to taste like Mama
Myrt’s. After she moved to Virginia to take care of Essie, I felt lost again in the kitchen.
It seemed like nothin’ I did turned out for the good. It didn’t taste like Mama Myrt’s; hell,
it didn’t even look like hers. I felt like such a failure, like I couldn’t do nothin’ without her
looking over my shoulder to correct me. But do you know what Ole done?”
“What?” I asked, almost literally on the edge of my seat. And I’d noticed that the deeper
she got into her story, the better the food tasted.
“He eat every bite, and went back for seconds. Even when I felt like I had done messed
up something so bad I wouldn’t give it to the dog. He cleaned his plate with a smile on
his face, and didn’t never once complain.” she said, smiling warmly even as a small
tear ran down her cheek. She looked at Ole, and he back at her, with a look of absolute
“What you got to understand, bud, is that it ain’t the food that matters all the time. It’s
the love of the one that made it, that’s what makes the difference.” Ole said, reaching
over and touching Beverly’s hand with amazing gentleness. The room practically
radiated with love, and I will always remember it as one of the best meals I’d ever had.
We stayed up till almost 1:00 AM, talking, laughing, and drinking. It was as close as
I’ve been to being fall-down drunk since college, but Bubbles matched me beer-forbeer
and would have probably put me under the table if we’d have started a little earlier.
Ole didn’t even seem to be buzzing. They regaled me with tales of their “colorful” life
together, like the time when Bubbles had just moved in with Ole and the boys and one
of their teachers had the nerve to say to John, the oldest, that his father was living in
sin with a whore. That “brought out the trailer park” in Bubbles, who wanted to ride her
Harley right into the teacher’s room and whip her ass in front of the class. Cooler heads
prevailed, and Bubbles settled for using the needlepoint skills Myrt had taught her to
make a dainty little lace-fringed pillow for the teacher, with a suggestion neatly stitched
on both sides that the teacher go perform a certain sexual act all by her lonesome.
Even though I was dead tired and pretty drunk, I couldn’t go to sleep right away. I
kept turning over the evening’s conversation in my head. My request for one of Myrt’s
specialties not only placed Essie up against an impossible measure, a situation in which
she knew could not possibly succeed. The fact that she bravely did her best in the face
of withering odds, and my failure to recognize the magnitude of her love for me that it
took to even try, must’ve felt like total rejection. Just like the way her mother made her
feel, except she couldn’t choose her mother. She chose me, she gave every part of
herself to me with absolute trust. And I had failed her.
I woke up the next morning, miraculously, without a hangover. But I still felt like crap
anyway. I was having a hard time deciding which hurt worse, not knowing what I’d done
to hurt my beloved girl so deeply, or knowing exactly what I’d done. I walked into the
kitchen, where Ole and Beverly were having a cup of coffee. Beverly got up and poured
me one, and I sat down at the table with them.
“We weren’t expecting you out of bed till past eleven. You was plumb done in last night.”
Ole said, with a gentle smile.
“I’m still plumb done in.” I said, with a smile. “But I can’t be away from Essie any longer,
it’s like I’m missing a part of me. I’ve got to find a way to make up for what I’ve done, to
make things right again.”
“That Exploder of yours got four-wheel drive?” Ole asked.
“All-wheel drive, and a limited slip differential.”
“That ought to get you there. She’s up at Aunt Rosie’s, about forty-five minutes from
here. Halfway up a mountain, and a good two miles of bad dirt road. Let me go get a
piece of paper, I’ll write down directions. That fancy GPS won’t do you no good, she
ain’t got a street or route address. Gets her mail in town.” he said, rising from his chair
with a slight groan as his battered knees cracked and popped like they were filled with
“Let me tell you something, Mike,” Beverly said, reaching across the table and taking my
hand, “there ain’t nothing you can do to undo what you did, even if you didn’t mean to
do it. All you can do is love that girl with all you got. I got through most of my life on my
looks, and the fact that men would pay good money to see my boobs. Along the way, I
was used and abused by a lot of men who didn’t want me for nothing but the parts they
could see. And when my looks went, when my boobs started to sag and my ass started
spreading out, they didn’t want me at all. That’s when that man in there found me, and
he looked at me like I was beautiful again. Not just a nice piece of ass, really beautiful.
And he treated me like I was some sort of precious gift he’d been given. And not a day
has gone by in twenty-three years that he ain’t made me feel anything less than that.
“We’ve had our troubles, all couples do, and we’ve both said things we didn’t mean
when we’d had a few too many. There’s been a couple of times I’ve had my saddle
bags packed and slept on the couch, waiting for first light to get the hell out of here.
Only a fool rides these roads on a motorcycle after dark. But then, I’d wake up in the
morning, and he’d be sittin’ in that chair right across from me, looking at me like I
was beautiful even though I’d cried half of my makeup off and slept on the couch and
probably looked like hell. And then he’d come over and take me in his arms, not like he
was trying to stop me from leaving, but like he knew he’d just die if I did leave. He never
said a word, he didn’t have to. Whatever it was I was so hurt or pissed off about the
night before just burned off like morning fog.”
“Looks like you ain’t gon’ need them directions.” Ole said, stepping halfway back into
the kitchen. “Come look.”
I went into the living room and looked out the window. There was Essie’s unmistakable
orange Subaru, heading straight up the driveway. I was out the door like a shot and
met her halfway. She stopped, put the car in park, and practically jumped into my arms.
Then, the tears came. But these were different than the awful tears from the other
night. They weren’t quite tears of joy, they were tears of relief. I know, because I was
shedding them, too.
Everything had happened so quickly, Essie showing up out of the blue before I’d even
really had time to process what Beverly had just told me. I hadn’t had time to think
about what I’d say or do when this moment came, as I’d prayed it would. I wanted to tell
her that she was all to me, that nothing else in this world mattered. But when she looked
into my eyes, I knew that everything that needed to be said between us was right there.
I knew that she had forgiven me my careless words, and she knew that I would rather
die than ever again make her think even for a moment that she was anything less than
my entire world. We kissed—a long, slow, healing kiss—and just then, the first ray of
sunshine found its way through the morning fog and filled the little valley with a golden
glow. And somewhere, I just know, Myrt was smiling and maybe even had a little tear in
We stood there, holding each other, for a little while. Finally, she looked up at me and
said, “Let’s go home.”
I went in and grabbed my overnight bag, and we said our thanks and goodbyes, and
went through a round of hugs. Essie practically disappeared in Ole’s girth when he
hugged her. And when Beverly hugged me, the duration no longer felt uncomfortable.
Just before she let go, she whispered in my ear, “Buttermilk. Mama Myrt soaked the
chicken livers overnight in buttermilk first. Makes all the difference.”
We rolled back into Branscomb’s Mill a little after 5:00. Both of us were physically and
emotionally spent, so I picked up a pizza from Uncle Sal’s (with anchovies, which Essie
and I both liked, much to Mom’s delight) and by the time I got home, Essie was already
inside. I felt it the moment I walked in the door. The house felt like home again, warm
and comforting. We ate pizza and drank wine, we talked and laughed and touched each
other affectionately and felt whole again. We turned in early, and Essie fell asleep with
her head resting on my chest. I fell asleep with a grateful smile on my face, and my
heart filled with the joy of redemption.
The next evening, Essie made chicken livers again. And they were honestly the best I’d
ever had. Pure love, with gravy.
©2013 Jeffrey E. Fitzgerald