After Pete died and Beth had to move east to live with her daughter's family, she sold almost everything she owned. Not that she wanted to, but there just wasn't enough space in their home. Beth only had a few good pieces anyway, a cherry curio at the end of the hall filled with ceramic plates and Pete's oldest theology books, and a dining room set large enough to seat a crowd. Beth hated giving them up, but that's what happened to her life.
Beth kept the desk, a solid oak roll-top from her “college days” in seminary school, where she was never officially enrolled but stayed for five years reciting prayers, attending daily Mass, and distributing communion to the elders inside a terminal wing of a nearby Catholic hospital. She packed her bedding and linens into a leather suitcase, because Clare, her daughter, preferred cheap cotton sheets and fabric that needed no ironing. It wasn't the way she had raised her, but Beth knew better than to tell her child what to do anymore, especially while living in her house.
Clare traveled west for Pete's funeral. Her husband, Kenneth, stayed home with their son in North Carolina. The community at Saint Agnes Seminary was in a hurry to turn over the house to a new resident deacon before the spring semester began. No matter Pete and Beth had lived there twenty-four years, that Beth had their wives in for coffee or brandy countless times, or that she had kept up the home as a reflection of the school and its parish. Beth was out without so much as a question to how she might get by. She never asked Clare if she could move in with her, and Clare never actually offered either. Clare stood in the hallway studying both familiar and unfamiliar framed prints of Agnes and the Virgin Mary, arms folded with her father's hard jaw, and said, “You're going to have to part with this big furniture.”
When they picked up Beth from the airport in Durham, Kenneth was not there. Her grandson, Stephen, hid behind his Clare’s legs as they waited for her bags to slide around the belt. Beth had bought him a stuffed beagle from the airport gift shop and attempted to give it to him, but Stephen clutched Clare's waist and asked, “Why is she so fat?” Beth didn't try to give him the beagle again, and when she saw Clare stroking his black hair instead of reprimanding him, Beth wanted to fly right back to Saint Agnes, house or no house, and walk the quiet winter paths around campus.
Clare put Beth in what her family called “the back room.” It was a small office at the end of the hallway with no closet, a single window, hardwood floors, and a daybed with groaning springs. (Stephen, one evening, commented on how much louder those bed springs sounded since Beth began sleeping there. He said he could hear those bed springs from the living room even with the television on.) Beth kept most of her belongings put away and her clothes in a drawer under the daybed. She didn't complain. Her roll-top desk wasn't the same type of wood as the floors in the back room, and Clare wanted to sell it but Beth would be black and blue before turning the desk over to some junk dealer.
Beth didn't have much to do with Kenneth. Clare and Stephen were all they had in common, so the two said little to each other. If they were ever alone in a room, it fell to Beth to start a conversation. She would mention the tree at the end of the property and how it looked during winter, or that maybe they could all spend more time together with the horses and build a bonfire one evening out back, or she'd bring up Stephen's unusually silent, wraith-like nature. Kenneth would respond in one or two words. He rarely looked at Beth; he wanted to pretend she wasn't there. Most times, when Kenneth was home and not traveling for his job as a quality control manager, Beth kept quiet and listened to where he went in the house so she could be in a different room.
She asked Kenneth for one thing. Beth wanted a piece of the yard, a patch near an abandoned cottage behind the house, where the sun touched the grass through midday. She thought she could plant a garden there.
Spring arrived later than usual that year, but Beth still spent much of her time outdoors to stay out of their way. The cold reminded her of Pete's hands and how he was always rubbing them together, how they made little to no sound, because his hands were so soft from years of work at Saint Agnes. She walked with the horses in their pasture and noticed feral cats wandering through the divots, stealthy and curious about her and what she was doing there. She and Pete always had a house cat or two at Saint Agnes. Pete was the type of man who enjoyed cats, especially manx or hairless breeds, because they were different.
Clare bought cans of tuna for Beth on her weekly trips to the grocery store in town, and Beth allowed her daughter to believe she had been eating them for lunch. She was able to convince two skinny, orange cats to come around the cottage, and after a few weeks, they let Beth touch the fur along their knobbly spines. Clare never said anything, though Beth felt sure that her daughter had caught on to what she was doing in the fields.
It turned out Kenneth had delicate sinuses. Even a few cat hairs on Beth's clothing could set him off. She tried brushing the cats' hair from herself as best she could, but Kenneth kept hacking a dry cough—like his wife, not saying anything, but always making a point.
In spring, Beth announced she was moving into the cottage. Kenneth said he knew he had a reason for never tearing the thing down, and Clare said she thought moonshiners used to meet there as an exchange point to drink and play cards. “It’s not a cottage,” she said. “More like a speakeasy.” From that day forward, Beth traipses through mud to come to the house for dinner each evening. As musty as that place was in the beginning, she loved her new freedom. Beth painted the walls the saturated color of robin's eggs and didn't particularly mind that the bathroom was missing a door or evidence of ever having one. She became friends with the cats and eventually named them—Mozart and Bad Milo—according to their personalities.
Even the daybed felt more enjoyable and less noisy in the speakeasy. There was some tackiness to be seen by her good sheets on the uneven surface of the mattress, but Beth slept better there. She no longer had to listen to Clare or Kenneth whisper at night, trying to keep her from hearing them. It was difficult to tell if there was any fondness in their whispering, and it became tiresome to stay awake and attempt to pick up a word or a tone of voice. Still, Beth missed Pete and found herself thinking of him often at night, a soft and warm sleeper despite his cold hands, who rarely moved and never covered with more than a thin sheet unless feverish or stressed.
Beth spent a lot of time alone in the speakeasy, except for the occasional visit from Stephen, who became more accustomed to her, or so it seemed. He liked to open cans of food for the cats, but he was still too afraid to pet them because of his father's allergies. Of all the strange things in that speakeasy—the bathtub sunken into the floor, the roof sweating nicotine from former smokers—the strangest thing was the electric can opener fastened into the kitchen wall. The previous inhabitants made everything as nasty and inconvenient as possible, but they saw to it that opening a can was easy enough to do. The object, old and gimmicky, amused Stephen, and he gave Beth a little company now and then, even though the child was as hard to get to know as anyone Beth had ever met. The students and wives of Pete's colleagues were nothing in comparison to her grandson.
On a Saturday in April, when the land had thawed for the season, Kenneth dug out a few square yards of ground, built a couple of raised beds and tossed in some topsoil. He hooked up a PVC pipe sprinkler system that attached to a long hose outside the house. Then, he poured a trail of gravel rock from the speakeasy to the back door of the kitchen. Beth wouldn't have to manage through mud anymore when she walked up for dinner. Kenneth never told Beth that he built the garden for her, but she knew she would be the only one tending it. “Try to keep those cats from shitting in there,” Kenneth said. That was his way of letting Beth know the garden was finished.
From the first day, the garden was good and workable. Beth planted squash and zucchini in one bed, cucumbers and tomatoes in another, herbs and peppers in the last. She planted sweet potatoes around the speakeasy, because she knew the vines would grow like mad. No one seemed too excited about it. Clare said she did not remember the garden Beth kept during her childhood. She was content buying produce from the grocery store or downtown farmer's market, but Beth thought maybe she could make Stephen enjoy the warmth of a vegetable from the vine. Maybe she could persuade him to pet Mozart or Bad Milo. Maybe she could cause him to accidentally say more than one sentence at a time.
Stephen squeaked across the yard one summer morning and stood in the water spilling from the PVC pipe. He wore yellow rain boots with khaki shorts and a blue hooded jacket. Beth did not know whether his mother sent him over or if he came on his own. He stood in the water, arms by his side and head down, allowing the low stream to soak the front of his chest. With his eyes closed, he touched one hushed current with an outstretched hand and then bent slightly forward. Water parted his hair below the crown, dripped down his neck, and plastered dark hair to his forehead. When the silent child began to hum something she had never quite heard before, Beth closed her eyes, too. In that moment, Stephen was the most beautiful and alive person she had felt in a long, long time. She wanted to try and give him the gift shop beagle again.
The peppers and tomatoes grew quickly in the early summer season. Beth had to reinforce the stakes supporting the tomatoes with woven copper wire. She was concentrating on braiding with Bad Milo smacking his paws at the soles of her shoes when she felt Stephen standing behind her.
“Well, won't you be happy when these are ripe and you can slice them up for dinner?” Beth touched a large, green tomato weighing down a branch barely supporting its size.
“I'm not allowed to slice,” Stephen said.
“I can show you how.”
Beth picked two medium-sized red peppers from another bed and led Stephen inside the speakeasy. He took his shoes off by the door, not that tracking in dirt or rocks could have made the dingy linoleum tile any worse than it already was. Beth washed, gutted the seeds, and dried the peppers with a paper towel. She placed them on a cutting board and pulled a utility knife from the drawer. “Let's see,” she said. Carefully, Beth sliced one half of a pepper while Stephen watched. She moved the blade slowly and demonstrated how her other hand was kept away from the sharp edge.
Beth put the knife in his hand, but he didn't grip it naturally. His hand was limp, as though he thought his mother was nearby watching him. Beth stood behind Stephen and wrapped her hand around his positioning her finger and thumb so he could move more comfortably. She guided his hand over the cutting board, back and forth, wanting him to feel the motion and take to it on his own. Stephen looked up at Beth for what might have been the first time. She held the pepper in place with its skin facing down on the board. Stephen's grip felt loose beneath hers.
“Come on,” Beth said. She tightened her hand around his. “It's easy.”
“It's not,” he said.
“It's okay,” she said.
Neither know whose hand was actually holding the knife when it touched the pepper to make a second slice, but when Stephen jerked away, he twisted the knife into Beth's hand. Blood covered and stained the cutting board. The knife dropped, but before Beth could say a word, Stephen was gone. The screen door slammed against the frame. In the bathroom, Beth turned on the cold water in the crooked sink, ran her hand under the spigot, and watched diluted blood swirl around the drain. She could tell that her hand needed stitches. The pain was clean and sharp and too close to the bone. It was numb and throbbing at the same time. Beth thought she might need to walk up to the house and ask Clare or Kenneth to drive her to the hospital in Chapel Hill.
But first, Beth cleaned the utility knife and put it away. She rinsed the red pepper and the cutting board. Light poured into the speakeasy onto her secondhand furniture and roll-top desk that she had not used once since leaving Saint Agnes. The beagle from the airport gift shop stood on top of her miniature refrigerator next to votive candles and bottle of brandy. Her hand continued to throb and bleed through the paper towels wrapped around it. She was almost out of paper towels. Beth knew she should tend to the cut on her hand, and she would, and she would see Stephen and quiet all the silly fears his parents put in him, but the room felt warm and she tired, so before she did anything else, Beth lay down on the daybed and just rested and became pleasant in her drowsiness and age and weight.
When Clare burst through the screen door—she almost never came to the speakeasy —Beth thought she was there to pick up Stephen's shoes.
“Stephen is hysterical,” Clare said. “He says he stabbed you.”
Beth sat up, and Clare looked so angry that for a moment, Beth thought she had been the one to hurt Stephen.
“For Christ sake, Mom. Look at your hand.”
When Beth did what her daughter asked, she saw the bedding and linens ruined beneath her. Clare removed the damp paper towels. Blood glued bits of paper to the cut where Beth's skin felt the most tender.
“Honestly,” Clare said, “he's crying his head off, and Kenneth is not happy.”
“Well, I wouldn't want Kenneth bothered,” Beth said.
“I'm going to get the car and bring it down. Where is your insurance card?”
“Great.” Clare inspected the speakeasy, like there was something entirely foreign about the place and her mother, and found Beth's wallet on the kitchen table next to an empty tea cup, a folded copy of USA Today, and rosary. Before leaving, she said: “Mom, that secretary really needs to go.”
Like everything else in the speakeasy, the screen door was askew, and with the door open, Beth watched Clare disappear. She wished she had her husband to care for her instead. If Pete were here, Beth could count on him to wrap her wound and make a nice bowl of soup out of the red peppers she left on the counter with onion and garlic and parsley and okra. Why had she chosen not to plant okra in her garden?
At twenty years old, Clare moved away for college, and when she returned home for breaks at Saint Agnes, she would roll her eyes when Beth asked Pete to do something for her, like fix breakfast or clean her shoes. As an adult, Clare did all her cooking and cleaning, and she seemed to forget how she used to tie Pete's apron strings around her body so that the two of them were attached. Pete allowed his daughter to waddle behind him in the kitchen and pretended not to notice her or her laughter. Pete would dramatically narrate his every movement like an actor on a stage reciting Shakespeare or Marlowe: “And now, He is going to taketh these hot-hot potatoes to the sink and draineth them there. He hopes only that the townspeople, the great provokers, are in proper accord with decision such wrought. Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers.”
Beth smiled and heard the car idling outside the speakeasy, but she did not move. It occurred to her that she had not turned on the PVC pipe to water the garden that day, and if the garden was not watered, all her work would be wasted. Beth followed Clare outside and sat in the passenger seat holding her hand above her heart. She looked at the garden and saw Mozart and Bad Milo—fattened up since she had begun feeding them—digging in the soil and nightshade of the pepper plants. It appeared that they were now hers.
Sarah Key is Craft Talk Editor at The Tishman Review. Her work has appeared in the Greensboro Review, Tricycle, Kudzu, NAILED Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the director of a secular non-profit organization, Nashville Women in Atheism, and teaches English as a Second Language to immigrants and refugees.