“Loretta,” her mother called from the living room over the rattle of the window unit.
“Loretta!” she yelled when she received no answer.
Loretta stood outside on the steps, smoking a cigarette. She could feel the cool of the kitchen coming through the screen door, teasing her as the sun poured down its heat. Bugs were lively in the grass which would be well above her ankles if she were to surrender to the strong inclination to step down and take off across the lawn. The neighbors’ yards to either side were neatly trimmed. She flicked her ashes and added “mow the lawn” to her mental list of chores.
“Just a minute, Mama!” she screamed. She took another drag and exhaled into the simmering air of wild onions and honeysuckle. Loretta flicked the cigarette into the unruly yard and went inside. The screen door banged behind her on its spring. She dodged a sticky fly strip dangling from the ceiling just inside the kitchen.
“Close that door.”
Loretta turned, suppressed a huff and a tart word, and closed the solid door. She shooed a fly from the skillet of scrambled eggs on the stove.
“Did you latch the screen door?”
“Yes,” Loretta said as she went into the living room.
“No you didn’t,” her mama said. Doris Jean Lesley sat in her chair, swollen feet and legs propped on a stained pillow atop a respectfully worn, tapestried foot stool. “I didn’t hear you latch it. You didn’t latch it and you didn’t lock the door either. I know you didn’t.”
“What does it matter, Mama? Ain’t nobody visits us much anyways.”
“What if a man comes in, Loretta?” Doris fidgeted. “They could just walk right in, free and clear. And all because you left the door wide open.”
Loretta peeked through the curtains of the front window. She banged the air conditioner seated there, but it still rattled. “I don’t see any men on the street, Mama. Mr. Bridges and Mr. Stewart have gone to work. They’s nobody home to either side of us except their wives and kids. No cars are stoppin’.” She opened the front door. “There ain’t no boys pounding on the door screamin’ ‘Loretta Lesley! Loretta Lesley! Let us in! We’ll huff and we’ll puff!’”
“Close that door, girl! I’m in my gown tail,” Doris whispered with a shake. “Any old stranger could walk in, Loretta.”
Loretta closed the door and locked it. “And do what, Mama? Love me up? Rape me?”
“Why do you talk like that?” Doris bit at her lips. “I’m ashamed you even talk thatta way. How’s a pretty girl like you know such a word?”
“Know such a word as what, Mama? Love or rape?”
“Loretta,” the woman’s face scrunched, a telltale sign she was ready to cry. “I raised you better’n that.”
“You tried. But it’s all over the radio and TV and picture shows these days.” Loretta smiled with more on the tip of her tongue. She closed her mouth a moment as Doris turned her head. “Oh, Mama, whatever happened to your sense of humor?”
“It ain’t funny,” her mama said, recovered from the threat of tears.
Loretta inspected the fly strips hanging in the corners of the room. The one behind her mother swayed slightly from the blow of the window unit.
“You goin’ out and smokin’s what’s lettin’ in all these flies.” A noisy pest circled Doris’ head.
Loretta swatted at the fly.“Could be.” It left Doris, zigzagged the air, then disappeared into the house.
“Then stop the smokin’.”
“I really wish I could, Mama.”
“You wish, my foot. You don’t want to.”
“I need it for my nerves,” Loretta said.
Doris groaned. “And just what do you have to be nervous about?”
Loretta sighed. “Strange men walkin’ in, I guess. You ready for your breakfast?”
“Yes, I’m ready for my breakfast.” Doris sneered at her. “Been waitin’ on you, like always.” Loretta went to the kitchen and got a plate from the cabinet. “Eat up, you old biddy,” she said as she heaped scrambled eggs onto it. “Been waintin’ on you, like always,” she mimicked. “I been waitin’, too, damn it.”
“Don’t forget my napkin!” her mother hollered.
Loretta grabbed a linen napkin from the table after she poured a glass of milk.
“Did you scramble the whole dozen?” Doris asked when Loretta returned. The plate was weighted with a fluffy mountain of egg crumbles. A fork stuck out the side like a spear.
Loretta sat the milk on the side table beside her mother’s chair. “I didn’t know how hungry you was.” She drew up a straight back chair beside her mother. “You want me to feed you.”
“Would you mind, honey,” her mama’s voice suddenly grew frail. “I ain’t got it in me this morning.” She tried to raise her arms and made a show of the effort it took. “I’m so sore this mornin’, and I’m a-hurtin’ so bad all over.”
Just like supper last night, and breakfast and lunch yesterday, and the day before-
Loretta blew at a fly that buzzed near the plate.
“And these flies you keep lettin’ in are driving me crazy. I’m gonna go right outta my mind, Loretta.”
“Yes, Mama,” she said.
“Can’t you get that air conditioner to quit that racket?”
“No, Mama. I tried. It rattles. It’s gonna keep on rattlin’.”
“It just drives me crazy. It and these blasted flies. Rattle and buzz, rattle and buzz. You ever hear a noise that just drives you crazy?”
Loretta stabbed the plate as she scooped for eggs. “Yes, Mama. I have.” Doris opened her mouth for the first bite.
“Kinda bland,” her mama said as she chewed. “You put pepper in’em? I don’t taste any pepper.”
“I put pepper in ‘em,” Loretta said. The fork shrieked across the plate.
“I don’t taste any pepper,” said Doris. Bits of egg fell from the corners of her mouth and rolled like a rock slide down the front of her flannel gown.
“You shouldn’t talk with your mouth full, Mama. You know that, you’ve hammered that in me all my life. You’re makin’ a mess.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Doris said, deeply apologetic. More eggs escaped.
“Well, quit talking.” Loretta balanced the plate on her lap and dabbed her mother’s mouth with the napkin.
“Fly!” Doris blew at the pest hovering above the plate. Eggs came out of her mouth in chunks.
Loretta jumped up. The plate leaped off her lap and shattered six ways on the floor.
“Look what you did!” Doris snipped.
“Me!” Loretta waved her hand over the mess of moist eggs. “Just look, Mama!”
“There was a fly-”
“Let me handle it-”
Doris snorted. “Let you— that’s rich. You’d stand in a river and die of thirst.”
“And just what’s that supposed to mean?” Loretta demanded.
Doris was smug. “You askin’s proof in the pudding, ain’t it?” “You shut up.”
“Fine way to talk to your mama. After all I’ve done for you. Disrespectful.”
“The way I talk to you?” Loretta paled a brief second then her face lit red. “The way I talk to you? All I hear all day long is ‘Loretta, Loretta, Loretta. Loretta do this, Loretta do that, Loretta you did that wrong, Loretta you did this wrong, Loretta who taught you to clean a house, Loretta you messed up the eggs. Loretta lock the door before somebody has the nerve to come walkin’ in!” She took a moment to breathe as her list of grievances unfurled in her head.
“I don’t mean anything by it,” Doris frowned, her face ready to contract and squeeze out a teardrop. “I’ve always tried to do right by you, Loretta.”
“You’re not meanin’ anything by it is what drove Daddy to his grave. You’re tryin’ to do right hounded him from sun up to sundown. You’ll not send me to my grave, Mama. I won’t let you. I won’t allow it.”
Doris’ mouth had dropped wide. “Now, Loretta-”
“You just wait,” Loretta said. She bent and scooped eggs into her hands. Her hair fell around her face in greasy curls. “I’m gonna leave you, Mama-” she threw a handful of eggs at Doris.
“You stop that, Loretta!”
“I’m leaving you and you wrinkle up and die in this house! All alone! Without me!” She flung the other load of eggs at her mother. “You’re not gonna talk mean to me no more! You’re not gonna have me to do nothin’ for you no more!”
“You just go on and leave, you little ungrateful heathen!” Doris shouted. “How far you gonna get on your own? You ain’t even got the brains to cook eggs right. Some man gonna take you and make a woman outta you? Little Miss Bride, look at you. Even ones ain’t got brains need looks and cookin’ skills to get a man and keep him. You can’t cook for shit and you look like somethin’ plucked off your daddy’s ass.”
Loretta stared at her mother through a sheen of exploding crimson walls. She pushed her hair behind her ears and marched off.
“Where are you goin’?”
“Where do you think?” Loretta spat.
“Gonna smoke another one.”
“And another one and another one,” Loretta shrieked. “I’ll smoke a whole goddamn pack!”
“I’m not finished with my breakfast!”
Loretta’s shoes were shrill on the kitchen linoleum as she spun. She stomped back to her mother.
“You’re finished!” Loretta yelled at her. “You’re done! I’m done! This ain’t right!” She snatched the phone off the wall, her finger jammed into the rotary dial.
“What are you doing?”
Loretta licked sweat from her lips and smiled at her mother. “I’m callin’ them, Mama. I’m, by God, callin’ them to come take you away. They’re gonna cart you off because you can’t do a single damn thing for yourself. You can’t even shovel my slop into your miserable old mouth. I’m doin’ it for sure this time,” she laughed. “The neighbors can watch the saintly Doris Jean Lesley tied to a stretcher and throwin’ a bitch fit on the front yard as they put you in the back of a van.”
“Loretta, you put that phone down, you hear. You do as you’re told. I am still your mama and you will do as I say.”
“Not this time, not no more.” Her eyes were already wet with joy. “I’m kicking you out.”
“Why would you do your own mother this way, Loretta?” Doris clutched her chest. “You’re gonna kill me. That what you want?” She struggled with her words. “You want to kill your own mother? It’s murder. Why would you do…oh, my heart…why would you do this?”
“It ain’t right you talkin’ to me like this, Mama,” Loretta said. She had begun to dial a number. The rotary click click clicked. “You shouldn’t talk to me like this. Nobody deserves this, Mama.” She put her back to her mother. The ringing in the receiver was louder than the rattle of the window unit and the buzz of the flies. “You ain’t gonna do this no more.”
“Loretta, please, I’m sorry, don’t do this.” She yelled, “Loretta! Don’t do this!”
A woman’s voice answered on the phone. “Boswell County General Hospital. How may I direct your call?”
A calm came to Loretta, a clarity of thought and feeling. Shyly, she peeked at her mother. Three days of food were stuffed into Doris’ gaping mouth. Plump, glistening flies buzzed around her, crawled over her mottled skin and the rotting meals.
The air conditioner shook in its casing.
“Hello, this is Loretta May Lesley,” she said to the woman who listened at the other end of the line. “There’s something bad wrong with me and Mama.”