Mrs. Cutie Young lives in two rooms and drives a 1982 Ford Country Squire with the wood stickers peeling off, but her silverware collection used to be worth thirty thousand dollars. I say used to because three weeks ago it was stolen right off the mahogany breakfront while she was out. I also should qualify that her house has plenty of rooms she isn’t using, and it is not Cutie Young who drives the Ford but me, her nurse. I do not know why Cutie has a nurse, or why, for that matter, people call her Cutie. She’s mean and stubborn and takes a long time in the toilet but other than that there’s nothing much wrong with her.

I drive her to the Food Lion, to Aylett to go to the doctor, and lately to antique stores and pawnshops to look at silver asparagus servers and ice tongs and oyster forks and what all, glinting pieces of metal as lacy and useless as doilies. The State Farm man offered her the thirty thousand, or to replace what she had with new pieces, but the new pieces don’t approach hers in quality—it’s all hollowware now—and besides, her pieces were not monogrammed but had her married name, Young, written out whole in scripty letters. They came down four generations of Youngs. The pattern is called Imperial Chrysanthemum. It has a bumpy, spiny surface that hurts your hand to hold and is a royal pain in the ass to polish. They don’t make it anymore, though they make plenty just as tacky.

Maybe simplify, I told Cutie, picking up a simple Revere pattern with plenty of room for her name—first and last. The insurance man had brought a whole suitcase of patterns from Richmond to show her. I wanted to open up the dining room for his visit, so he’d have a place to lay them out, but she said the sunporch was good enough for an insurance man. I don’t know a soul who has been good enough for that dining room, or either of the living rooms, since I have worked here. That includes grandchildren, her son, his wife, and the minister. She won’t let him in at all.

She shook her head. Ridiculous, she said, like I was suggesting she eat with plastic forks and knives, or with her toes. You criticizing my taste?

No ma’am, I said, thinking, I’m criticizing your husband’s great-great-somebody’s taste.

The Imperial Chrysanthemum was a beautiful pattern, said Mr. State Farm. He had on a suit. It was so hot on the sunporch that I think he had armpit stains through the wool. One-of-a-kind, he said.

I had to admit it was true.

So we have been all over: to Tappahannock, to Deltaville and Urbanna and Richmond and Gloucester. Her idea is that she will find the set piece by piece at the shops. I say good luck.

 

Have i said that I have a good idea what happened to it? About a month ago my grandniece’s husband and some others came and painted the sheds and outbuildings for Cutie. I let them in to use the bathroom—just once, while Cutie was napping, but it was enough for them to get a look around. They took their time, I remember. The husband runs with a no-good crowd; I told Tamara as much myself and wasn’t even the one to recommend them for the job. It was Horace, Cutie’s son, who paid them to come over. I just looked out the window one morning, stirring coffee, and there they were. When the sheriff’s deputy came to ask questions, I didn’t tell about letting them into the house. There has been a wave of juvenile-delinquent crime in the King William subdivisions—white kids stealing from neighbors, joy-riding cars. Rumors of drugs. I guess I was thinking: Go with that.

I’m old—not as old as Cutie, but too old to get into this mess. I’ve been here eight months; I wear my own clothes to work, and I am here six days a week. My nursing degree came from the Medical College of Virginia. When I was younger I worked in the NICU at the hospital in Tappahannock. Holding all those babies, small and sweet as anything, made that my favorite time of life. Also my husband was alive then, and all my sisters. Now I work for Cutie to pay on my boat. It has a name—Mattaponi Queen—and a sleeping bunk and a ladder to a high perch where you can stand, and it needs a lot of work. It’s a riverboat. I remember boats like it from when I was a little girl growing up nearby. They would go up and down the river like floating wedding cakes, always a party of white people drinking and waving their fans in the summertime.

Cutie’s two rooms are the kitchen and the sunroom, where she has her daybed and her desk and two sitting chairs. There’s a ceiling fan and a little table where I serve her a cold lunch, Monday through Friday, and an early hot supper. Saturdays her daughter-in-law brings a lunch, or has her over to her house. On those days I drive her the half mile, listen to her complain the whole way, go back to my house for a while, then pick her back up. It’s criminal the way her family won’t drive her anywhere, though I can understand their reluctance. Sundays she fends for herself.

The rest of the house is quiet, the drapes drawn, some of the better furniture covered in bedsheets. I don’t spend time in there for any reason, not to dust or sweep up the mouse droppings or wash the pollen-yellow windows. I am not a maid.

This morning, after I check her blood pressure, Cutie says, “We’re going to Petersburg to look at some silver.”

“Petersburg,” I say. “Hmmmf.”

“What hmmmf?”

“I don’t think the Squire will get us there,” I say. “And I don’t think we’re gonna find your silver in Petersburg.”

“I have a feeling,” she sniffs. I know what you are thinking: why doesn’t that fool pick up the telephone? Her name is written on the silver. Well, the answer is that her name isn’t on some of the serving pieces; the pattern’s too crowded. Also, Cutie doesn’t trust anyone. “I have a strong feeling we will find something.”

In another six months I will have enough for the boat and its repairs, and I will quit. When I get that boat working it will not be for any parties. It will be just for me.

 

On the way to town, Cutie holds the two pieces she has left, a spoon and a napkin ring, in her lap. She presses her pink, wrinkled thumb into the concave surface of the spoon and closes her eyes as if that spoon could tell us where to find its mates. I think she will fall asleep, right here, and prevent me from having to talk to her.

As we pass King William Estates, a parking lot of cheap little ranchers they knocked down all the trees to build, her eyes pop open like she was stuck by a pin. “White trash,” she pronounces, the sh like gnashing her teeth.

“Yes ma’am,” I say.

“Stole Mother’s silver.”

One reason I think it is my niece Tamara’s people is because I haven’t heard a peep from her, and usually she calls me on Sundays. Also they would know, from Tamara, that I always take Cutie over to Horace’s on Saturdays, and that is the day it got taken. I say it is a lucky thing I stayed in their drive waiting, reading a book, or else the police might think I did it. In fact they questioned me, right there on Cutie’s back porch.

Loretta, Cutie said, would not know what to do with silver asparagus tongs or cucumber forks. She feeds me colored food.

She doesn’t mention that this is the food she requests: collards and fried chicken and cornbread. I’d just as soon boil an asparagus.

What about selling them, the deputy said, looking at me. He had another cop, a lady cop-in-training, waiting halfway down the steps, and she looked at me too. I just kept on watering the geraniums.

Loretta has a pension, Cutie said.

 

“So what’ll you do with it,” I say, since she is awake. Today we are pretending we will find it. “When you get it back.”

“What do you mean,” she says. “I will count it, and I will put it away in the chest.”

Three times I have seen her count the silver in neat, fanned rows spread on the mahogany dining table, its leaves opened for just that reason. Every time we polished it, both of us out of boredom, she would make two counts. It was like the tired old gears in her brain made visible. She counted them by twos, barely touching them with her two shaking fingers.

Tamara lives just a mile down the road from me with a husband and no babies. I am hoping she will have some babies soon, to focus the both of them. I never had any babies, but that was not my choice. And besides, I was always focused.

Her grandma who raised her was my oldest sister. She died of a heart attack a year ago, which is a good thing I guess because she would hate to see the way Tamara keeps her little house or her yard or her husband, the way she runs around. She tells me she goes to nightclubs in Richmond where I am sure all kinds of rough people go.

Most days, she wakes up after twelve noon. I was taught, just like I know she was too, that nothing good can come of a day that starts after eight.

 

The Petersburg trip is a bust. The yellow-toothed man who owns the shop pretends to go looking in some back rooms for the silver, and when he comes out tries to sell us some chipped old pink-and-white Spode he says came down A. P. Hill’s family. Cutie leaves in a huff, but I can see that her eyes are watering in the corners. Before we leave town she makes me drive up and down the cracked cement road looking for more shops.

“I had a dream about it,” she says. We have all the windows rolled down, front seat and back, and Cutie is pressing a dampened rag to her forehead. “My dream told me we would find the coffee pot in Petersburg, and the sugar spoons.”

Now Cutie, I want to say, we could both of us be sitting on your porch under a ceiling fan. You could be having your afternoon glass of whiskey right now. What do you need the silver for except to leave it to people who won’t appreciate it?

“I think your silver’s gone,” I say finally. “I think you need to look again through the State Farm catalog.”

“No,” she says. “What do I want with that trash?”

To make her feel better, I stop at a Dairy Queen on the way home. The sun is blazing in the gravel parking lot, and I wait by the open passenger door. Cutie doesn’t like me to help her out of the car. She frowns down at her purse, willing herself, I guess, out of the seat. I tap my foot, bend down, and pull her up by the elbow. She is still clutching the spoon and napkin ring, all folded up inside a ratty piece of linen.

I settle her at a wooden table beneath some shade trees. I know what she wants so I don’t bother to ask. A hamburger with ketchup and a strawberry milk shake on the runny side. When I come back she has spread the ratty cloth and laid the spoon and napkin ring on top of it.

I give her the tray and sit down across from her, unwrap my cheeseburger. I like the salty, greasy thinness of a Dairy Queen hamburger but it’s not something I eat often. My husband used to take me to the Dairy Queen in Tappahannock for soft-serve on Friday nights. We would sit on the cement benches and eat our cones like a dating couple. Cutie pulls the paper wrapper off the top of the straw, rolls it up into a little ball.

“Loretta,” she says, after she has had a sip of the shake. Sometimes when she says my name it has a melody, almost like singing. Lo-rett-a. It is one of the things that keep me from hating her. She bends over the burger, unwrapping it slowly. The spoon is glinting in the light, not showing any tarnish. It must be three o’clock by now; the spirit is gone out of her. “What’ll we do tomorrow?”

The way she says it I can tell she doesn’t want an answer.

 

After i drop cutie off and fix her something to drink, I decide to go by Tamara’s on my way home. She’s not the easiest person to visit, either. She lives at the back end of a dirt road that the state doesn’t maintain. It gets muddy and rutted in the spring, banked up with snow in the wintertime. No big deal to her, since neither Tamara nor Charlie has a car. They need to go somewhere, they walk themselves to the main road and hitch. On the days Charlie works, he gets picked up by a truck with a white man driving it. He and all the others ride in the back like dogs.

I have a 1990 Chrysler New Yorker—last thing my husband bought me, I expect it to last—so I park along the main road, half in the ditch, and get out. My hip is sore from driving. I take my shoes off and roll up my jeans to keep them out of the dust.

The nice part of me is thinking that when I get there Tamara will have some iced tea to offer me, and we’ll sit on the front porch and talk, and I’ll tell her stories about her grandma. How summertimes when we were little we went everywhere except church in our bare feet, so tough on the bottom we could run down a gravel road without it hurting. How I still like the dry, clean feeling of dust under my toes. Overhead, the pine trees sway a little in a breeze I can’t feel.

But then the mean part of me is reminded that I will have to tiptoe over crushed bottle glass and cigarette butts to get onto her porch. Tamara’s grandfather was the finest gardener I ever knew. Planted my asparagus patch and the deep-green boxwoods in front of Cutie’s house, too. Here there’s nothing planted, not a single bulb or bush. I scuff my shoes back onto my feet to walk down her driveway, weedy in the middle from the scarcity of cars to pack it down.

Pulled up in front is a neat little silver car. It’s one of the cheap kinds you can get now with a million miles on the warranty, all the parts made of plastic. Great, I think, somebody’s visiting, but then I notice the temporary red-and-white tags on the back.

“Auntie,” I hear Tamara say from behind the darkened screen door. “I thought that was you coming up the drive.”

I climb up the rough steps she doesn’t have sense to sweep. In front of them she has laid out a flat of pansies, all purple and yellow and white.

“Whose car is that?” I say, stepping around.

The screen door creaks open and snaps shut behind her. Tamara has her hair tied up in a scarf and a flowered sundress on. She’s smiling real big at me, like the cat that ate the canary.

“It’s mine, Auntie.”

“Yours,” I say, looking back at it. “It is not.”

“Sure it is,” Tamara says. She squats down to fuss over the pansies, snapping the flat apart into rows. “Charlie got it for me.”

“Charlie,” I say. “Where’d he get the money for a new car?”

“It ain’t new,” she says. “It’s got miles on it.”

“Even still. It wasn’t free.”

“It won’t,” she says back smartly. My sister Ruth was not the one to teach her to talk common. That she learned outside the home. I think she does it to get my goat. “Charlie’s been working.”

“He has?” I ask, surprised. “Where?”

“For Mr. Young,” she says, then adds, “and some big jobs in Tappahannock. We owe on it still.”

Tamara disappears inside the house and comes out with two sweating cans of beer. I accept one and sit down heavily on her porch swing. It’s not like they installed it; it was there when they moved in. She sits down cross-legged by the pansies, resumes ripping the flat apart.

“I drove it into town this morning. Bought these flowers at the Wal-Mart.”

“You did,” I say.

“Didn’t grandma used to plant these same flowers every spring?” she said.

I say nothing back, so she adds, “at least I thought I remembered them. She told me, you know, some things about that Cutie Young.” Her voice is offhand and pointed at the same time.

“Things,” I repeat warily, sipping beer.

“More about Horace Young, Junior,” she says. “But also about Cutie.”

“Your grandma had a lot of ideas,” I say. “She had a big imagination too.”

“Way she told it, that big ole estate is part mine.”

“Oh Lord,” I say. “That old yarn.”

“Way she told it, them Youngs have some making up to do.”

What I want to say is: Why would you want what they could give you? They have nothing you can use.

“I suppose she did plant pansies,” I say instead. I have a vivid image of Ruth’s slate walkway at Easter, bordered on each side by pansies. “In the springtime.”

It’s summer now, and they’ll wilt in the ground, but I don’t say so.

 

Tamara’s mother was young when she had her—nineteen—and my sister was none too pleased. Ruth, who’d raised chickens for her living, wanted something better for her daughter, an only child. She thought Carolyn should go to school like I had, get a nursing degree. But Carolyn didn’t like school—started cutting around the sixth grade, I believe—and she got held back twice along the way. It was the end of her senior year when she had Tamara, and I remember we had a hot early spring that year, and Carolyn grew fat and mopey and impossible waiting for the baby. She cried and slept a lot, and she cursed anyone who tried to shake her out of it. Worst of all, she wouldn’t tell her mama and daddy who the father was. Ruth would beg and wheedle and threaten, and her husband, William, would threaten some more, but that girl wouldn’t budge. Ruth used to say, If you think I’m raising some baby you won’t give a name to, you’re sore mistaken. She must have said it a dozen times a day, to Carolyn or just to herself, folding clothes, sweeping, feeding her hens. But I knew she was bluffing, and Carolyn must have too.

Carolyn was allowed to do her schoolwork at home in the last weeks of her term. She’d take off in the middle of the day, just walking, tell Ruth she was going to work at the library. The library, a one-room place with no air-conditioning, only open Thursday through Saturday. Ruth just let her go, it was such a relief to get her out of the house. She’d come home with things for the baby or for herself: a blanket or a nursing bra, little onesies in pastel colors, little socks. Ruth figured she must have gotten them from the baby’s father and was encouraged. She let the schoolwork go.

Then in the last week before Tamara was born, it rained. I mean it poured. Thunderstorms every day and hot. Steam rose from the streets under the constant patter, a rolling white fog that looked eerie on the cloud-dark mornings when I used to go over there to check Carolyn’s blood pressure on my way to work.

With all the rain it was impossible for Carolyn to go off in the daytime, and I guess Ruth had stepped up her questioning. Still Carolyn wouldn’t budge. This baby is mine, I heard her say once, and that’s all there is to it. Finally it was her due date, and I brought over some hot pickles—one of the nurses from my shift said spice hurried babies—and a present, a small crochet afghan I’d been working. I remember holding it against my chest as I dodged the great puddles that had collected in Ruth’s drive. Ruth was standing just inside the door holding a dish towel.

She’s gone, Ruth said blankly as she opened the door to me. Rain pouring from the downspouts.

To the hospital?

She shook her head. I made her tell me, she said, her voice flat and faraway sounding. Last night. I made her say it. It’s Horace Young.

Ancient history: that’s what a lot of this town is. Houses, rented or owned, passed down father to son and mother to daughter. Silverware older than the people eating with it. Traits traced back into the uppermost branches of the family tree: Well, you know his great-granddad was mean as a snake.

Carolyn showed up three days later at the hospital in Tappahannock, gave birth to a healthy baby girl, and tried her intermittent best to raise her for four years. Horace never claimed her, and I gradually began to believe that Carolyn had said his name in desperation more than anything. She looked so much like Carolyn it was hard to picture a father, and you couldn’t tell from her skin tone. Ruth held onto the idea though, and I think it about ruined her life. Not her outside life, not the one we could see; no, she still laughed and loved and went to church and did her best with Tamara. What I mean is she spent a lot of time thinking, after that, about unfairness.

She and William had rented their house from the Youngs, William worked for the Youngs; the only thing she had separate from them was Carolyn. Horace had a reputation so I knew about how he’d been kicked out of three boarding schools, and I knew he ran around. Back when Carolyn’s trouble started he was unhappily married, drove a little red convertible. I can see Carolyn sitting up in that car, thinking she was onto something.

But children can be cruel, and I wondered then if Carolyn sensed that this story was the only way to ensure that her mama wouldn’t press the issue any further.

 

Horace’s wife, Andrea, drops off Cutie’s granddaughter Sammy first thing. She wanted to spend the day with her granny, Andrea says. Cutie, you don’t mind watching her?

Sammy is six, and a handful, and I can tell you the person who will be responsible for her will not be Cutie. I’m also certain that Andrea just wanted to be shut of her for the day so she can do her shopping or get her hair curled. 

Sitting in the wicker sunroom chairs, Cutie and Sammy have a stare-off as soon as Andrea’s car pulls away. It’s not my business but ladies as old as Cutie are no use as grannies to young ones. Andrea is Horace’s second wife, and she wanted a child badly enough that he let her have it even though he has four other children grown and married. Sammy is as spoiled as you would guess she is.

“Here,” I say, and give them both biscuits I’ve split and toasted with butter. “Give me your arm, Cutie.”

I take her blood pressure and her pulse: normal. I’d feel more useful if she at least had diabetes.

As soon as Sammy is done with her biscuit she starts kicking her shoe against the white wicker-chair bottom. “Where’s my mama?” she says. “I didn’t ask to come here.”

“Doing errands, I suppose,” I say. Cutie is still working on her biscuit, but I see her casting a sharp eye at Sammy.

“I hope she buys me something,” Sammy says. “I have to go to first grade next year.”

“You cut that out,” Cutie says, pointing at Sammy’s feet. Her reflexes are slow but sure. “Or I’ll make you walk home. When I was little I didn’t expect to get something every time somebody came to get me.”

“You can’t make me walk home,” Sammy says.

“I can,” Cutie says, picking up her dish and heaving out of her chair.

“I’ll go,” Sammy says, “but you won’t know where.”

“Where’ll you go?”

“To the store to get a Popsicle,” she says. “I have fifty cents.”

I bend down so I am at eye level with her. Her eyes are blue, like her hair ribbon, and hard. I think about her being half-sister to Tamara; it’s not impossible. “I better not hear of you leaving here to cross that road, miss,” I say. “Or you will have to cut me a switch.”

Sammy blinks at me like she knows I’m serious, and I can tell that she is thinking about crying. After a minute she asks, “But how will I get my Popsicle?”

“I’ll walk you after lunch,” I say.

It’s already too hot to play outside, and there’s not much for a six-year-old to do in two rooms that haven’t had a toy in them for twenty years. I give Sammy a deck of cards and tell her to play solitaire on the porch. She spreads out on the Astroturf carpeting, starts lining the cards up by suit. I suppose she doesn’t know how to play.

“Like this,” I say, and I show her how to deal out the cards fast in a row, and how to scan them for movable cards. I show her how to build up her row stacks, and tell her about how my sisters taught me to play solitaire so I’d stop bugging them to braid my hair.

Sammy looks at my short, straightened hair skeptically.

“Used to be long enough to braid,” I say.

Solitaire is sort of a complicated game to teach to a six-year-old, but I see that she is smart and she picks up fast. Before long I stand up, watch her start to play. Right away she starts cheating.

“Now that’s not playing the game right,” I say, “when you dig under the piles like that. If you cheat, what’s the point?”

“The point is I’ll win,” Sammy says, not looking up at me.

I turn around and see Cutie frowning in the doorway. She is wearing a housedress today and looks out of sorts. Her hair needs combing. She has the catalog from the State Farm man under one arm and a cup of coffee in her hand.

“Don’t you cheat,” Cutie says. “Loretta, if you see her cheating, take the cards away from her.”

I roll my eyes. “She’s six,” I say.

Cutie settles into her rocking chair. “We’ll both of us sit here and watch you,” she tells Sammy. Sammy just looks scornfully up at her. I think about the temper tantrum she must have thrown when her mama told her she was coming over today.

“Well, maybe I don’t want to play anymore then.”

She adjusts her game to the made-up one she was playing earlier. I can hear soft little mumbles as she makes the queens talk bossy to all the rest of the cards.

Cutie licks her thumb and starts paging through the catalog. She shakes her head at what is offered.

“Maybe you should just take the money, Mrs. Young,” I say.

“What do I need with thirty thousand dollars,” she says. “An old lady like me.”

At the mention of money Sammy’s ears perk up. “What money?”

“Never mind,” Cutie says.

“What’s it for?” Sammy asks. “Why won’t you tell me?”

“If I told you everything I know, you’d know more than me,” Cutie says, but she spreads open the catalog and sets it on the floor next to Sammy. “Why don’t you tell me which of these patterns you like the best?”

Sammy seems pleased with her assignment, and right away starts looking real close at the catalog. I sit back in my soft-cushioned chair and look out at the boxwoods. They are a deep, lush, green-black and more than eighty years old, just like Cutie.

“My husband was born in this house,” Cutie says, “and the silver was here then. His daddy was born here, and it was here then too.”

It used to depress me to think of being born so close by—the idea, I guess, was that I hadn’t gotten anywhere—but now I don’t mind as much. I’m able to see what has changed and what has been the same, even if those are not all good things. Somehow it’s a satisfying feeling, like staying to the end of a party to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Andrea picks Sammy up looking like a poodle. She keeps her sunglasses on in the house. She always looks straight ahead inside Cutie’s house, like she’s afraid if she looks around she’ll find something she has to do something about.

“You have fun?” she asks Sammy.

“I picked out new spoons for Granny,” Sammy says. “So she won’t have to eat with her hands.”

“That’s nice,” Andrea says. She tells Cutie, “I got held up,” and Sammy walks out the door without saying good-bye and without getting scolded. “Thank you for watching her, Cutie. I’m sure it was a treat.”

“A treat for who,” Cutie says. She has the catalog with her, but Andrea doesn’t ask to see it. Andrea gives us and the place a quick once-over, and I can see Cutie, her freckled pale legs beneath the housedress, reflected in Andrea’s glasses. I can smell her permanent solution from where I stand, by the stove.

 

When i leave i decide to go by my boat. I like to go there when I feel down. The man who’s letting me pay on it keeps it docked at his pier, and he doesn’t mind if I go and sit beside it for company. Well, he might mind, but he doesn’t say anything. I walk down the steep and creaking steps and feel the reassuring, good feeling of seeing it sitting there. mattaponi queen is spelled out on the hull, in peeling black letters. The first thing I’ll do is go over them so people don’t mistake: Loretta is the Mattaponi Queen now.

I lower myself slowly to the pier, let my legs swing down. They don’t touch the green surface of the water, as smooth as glass. The water reflects my legs back to me, and I think about Cutie’s poor veiny legs sticking out from under her dress. Anchoring her wherever she stands, white and stubborn as she is.

Cutie, not Horace, was the one Ruth focused her bitterness on. The way she hardly ever left the house, not even to grocery shop; she had “girls” to do that for her. Ruth would have hated to see me working for her, I know that much, and I wonder sometimes why it doesn’t bother me more than it does. Maybe it’s seeing Cutie reduced and weak, or maybe it’s just the easy money.

When Tamara was six, Ruth finally got the nerve to go over there. Put on her best clothes, her town hat and gloves, walked right up the front steps. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses knew not to do that.

Cutie opened the door and looked at Ruth with a start.

Your son, Ruth began, and my daughter—

Cutie looked her up and down like she had never seen her in her life—you know the look—and then she shut the door in my sister’s face.

The boat is as still as a house. The windows inside the cabin part, where you steer the boat, are frosted over with dirt and dried spray, so all you can see inside is darkness. Not a ripple disturbs the water; it is like a new-paved road.

I know a boat can’t tell you anything you don’t want to know. All it says is get away, get away.

 

It’s finally coming on fall, but still hot. My riverboat is still flaking paint into the river; I’ve made a practice of visiting it on Fridays. The sycamore leaves are curling up and falling into the street. At school, Sammy is already on warning for being sassy, Cutie tells me. On warning, I laugh. What are they gonna do about it?

It’s time to put away the tomato stakes and can what’s left. When there’s a cool day, Cutie and I will put up some pickles and stewed tomatoes. She says I can have some to take home too, like she’s doing me a favor.

I should think so, I say.

By December, I’ll have enough to make my final boat payment and the repairs besides, and I’ll stop working for Cutie. Thank God, Tamara says. I can’t imagine.

You do what you have to do to get what you need, I say to her. Isn’t that right?

It’s what my father did, and your grandfather and everybody’s mother.

I go to her house more often, now that she is expecting. We’re painting the second bedroom yellow and bordering it with a purple paper we found at Wal-Mart. Tamara knows somebody who says she can paint pansies here and there for an accent. We don’t know, but I hope it’s a girl. A sassy one.

She’s mostly stopped drinking and running around, and Charlie has a state job working road crews. He’s actually a foreman. Tell him to get a crew on your old road, I say. Lay some asphalt down here. I am still parking my car in the ditch and walking to get to her house, but like I said, it’s still warm out.

Sometimes he has to be gone for a couple of days at a time, and on those days I stay the night with Tamara and tell her stories about her grandma and me. How we used to run around before we got married, which was something I’d forgotten until she showed me this old sparkly dress of Ruth’s. Also about being kids and fishing and playing in the woods, all that stuff. Cakewalks. Church picnics. The old days. We don’t mention the Youngs.

When Charlie comes home Tamara makes a big meal and sets a place for him at the head of the table. She goes to a special drawer in the kitchen and gets out a fork, a knife, and a spoon. Imperial Chrysanthemum, heavy as lead. We don’t ever speak of it but I guess he saved those pieces just for himself.

Cutie keeps the check she got from State Farm on her dresser, under a jelly glass. I’ve told her a bunch of times I’ll drive her to the bank, but the Squire is in the shop, and she says she doesn’t like to ride in my car. I think it embarrasses her to need something material of mine. I also think she doesn’t want to cash that check.

When I am feeling nice I think about me and Cutie doing something together with the money, going to South Carolina to the beach for the winter maybe, or taking a trip to Italy, away from all these fools. On my meaner days I go to the drawer at Tamara’s. I like the cold, briny taste of a silver spoon in my mouth.