Tired Blood

by T.K. Lee

Knock. Knock. Knock. Pause. Knock. Knock.
Margaret Alice sighed.
Ada Lee at the door. Why three knocks weren’t sufficient was beyond her understanding of the thick-legged, shawl-covered woman she’d lived next door to for the past forty years.
Sure enough, there stood Ada Lee, a casserole in hand.
The door fell open, heavy on its hinges, and Ada Lee just stood there.
“Well, come in. I can’t afford to heat the whole neighborhood.”
“It takes a minute, you know.” Ada Lee remarked.
“Are you still in that brace?”
“Two more weeks, Dr. Arliss said.”
“I can’t even see it.”
“I’ve put on an old pair of Daub’s boot socks. They seem to do the trick. Can’t see a thing, other than a limp.”
Ada Lee had made it to the small bar that bridged, in her mind, the long lonely space between the kitchen and the den. She set the casserole on the formica.
“It’s Veg-All, with an extra can of green beans. Like you like.”
“I appreciate it.”
Ada Lee removed a shawl and laid it across the back of the nearest bar stool.
“Let me make you a plate.”
“I’m not all that hungry, at the moment.”
Ada Lee had already opened the cabinets above the owl clock on the counter, a plate in hand.
“You sure?”
“I’m sure. But, you go on ahead.”
Which she did.
Ada Lee wasn’t one to shirk the duties of attending to the sick, or infirm, or recently widowed; it was her idea, in the first place, for the church to keep a running list of those in need who were members of the congregation. Margaret Alice was fortunate Ada Lee lived so close, wasn’t she? Margaret Alice also knew that if Ada Lee brought you a casserole, at all, it was because she intended to eat some of it.
“I believe I will have a bite. You want anything at all, coffee, tea?”
“I’m fine.”
Ada Lee helped herself to a healthy portion of the casserole, spilling a small pile of it on the countertop, and being no stranger to the house, helped herself to the tea pitcher, sitting in the refrigerator.
Some sloshed over the lip of the pitcher and onto the kitchen floor, as she removed it; she didn’t seem to notice that.
“Ooh, who brought this?” Ada Lee pointed to a chocolate pie that was hardly lost among the scant few other dishes church members had brought to Margaret Alice in the past week. Ada Lee smiled that the other ladies had bothered; she was a good influence.
Margaret Alice said, “I wouldn’t count on too long a stay, I’m not sure I’m that much better.”
Ada Lee said, “This thick skin’s been around too long to worry about a summer cold. Who’d you say brought this here pie?”
“It looks delicious. That’s quite a meringue she’s put on it.”
“Help yourself.”
“Oh, now, I couldn’t.”
Margaret Alice waited until Ada Lee could. It wasn’t a long wait.
“I suppose I could do with some coffee, then,” she told Ada Lee.
“That will certainly make you feel better.”
She doubted that, but knew the course her afternoon was now about to take: a plate of casserole, perhaps two, then coffee and a slice of pie. Ada Lee would be as full of food as Margaret Alice would be fed up with her company. Which wasn’t quite the same thing.
And naturally, on her way out, it just wouldn’t do if she went home without a plate for Daub.
It was all the same to Margaret Alice, if a push came to shove. She had little appetite, anymore. No reason for the food to spoil. Take it, she willed Ada Lee, take every last bit.
“What you got it on in here?”
“As if that could heat the neighborhood, Margaret Alice, I swear. You’ll stay sick.” Ada Lee waddled down the hall and fiddled with the thermostat.
“I’m bumping it up to 85, while I’m here. I’ll turn it down before I go.”
Above the thermostat hung three pictures: one of Margaret Alice’s husband, Cotton, which he’d been called so long most might not remember that his given name was Whitten.  He was dressed in his blues, and easily twenty-five, in the picture. He was a handsome man, Ada Lee remembered.
Would this have been her life if she’d married him, instead? She was too self-assured back then. Dead for the last fifteen years.  She grinned. That part wouldn’t be so bad, considering Daub, who hung on like scab.
In a smaller frame beside his portrait was one of their wedding. Margaret Alice had made a beautiful bride. And he had made an enviable husband. And the small bump beneath her cream-colored dress would become a darling little girl; Mrs. Ming had made the dress by hand. That bump looked like fine stitching to the naked eye.
To the dumb eye, Ada Lee said to herself, and grinned again. Secrets don’t really age, do they? And besides, where was Susan now? Caught up in her make-believe world of painting on a street to attract a lover somewhere outside New Orleans. If she called home, Ada Lee didn’t hear much about it.
And Ada Lee could hear a pin drop before it fell.
“There we go,” she whispered as she waddled back to the den.
            The coffee dripped quietly into the pot, and Ada Lee took her plate and sat on the couch beside Margaret Alice.
“Wonder who’s moved into Mrs. Freshour’s place? I don’t recognize that car under the carport.”
“I hadn’t heard.”
And so it began.
The owl, in the kitchen, startled them both by hooting three times.
“Lord,” Ada Lee shook herself, “It’s three. I didn’t mean to stay so long, Margaret Alice.”
“It’s fine. Glad to have a little company.”
“I still need to run to town,” Ada Lee said as she picked up her plates, not a smudge of chocolate left on the smaller one, not a bite-size piece of Veg-All on the other, and like tar, dragged herself to the kitchen sink.
“You want me to wash these?”
“I’ll get it,” Margaret Alice replied. The time had come. She wanted to be by herself.
“That was delicious, thank you,” Ada Lee commented mindlessly.
Ada Lee laid a hand on the door knob before remembering her shawl. Crossing the few steps back to the bar stool, she swooped it up and slung it over, carelessly, her broad shoulders.
“Can I get you anything from town? I got to run to Tiller’s Drugs for Daub’s heart pills.”
“I’m fine.”
“Well, if you think of anything, now, you holler at me, all right?”
“I will.”
“All right then, I’ll call you this evening, then, and check up on you.”
“I appreciate it,” Margaret Alice replied, noncommittally.
“I know you do, honey,” Ada Lee said, sweetly and genuinely. Because she really believed it, herself.
Ada Lee clenched the borrowed plate, stacked with food she’d prepared for Daub, to her chest as if for emphasis. The tin foil crinkled in resistance.
Then, she pulled the door closed behind her, leaving Margaret Alice in a dirty kitchen.
She took a spoonful of cough syrup, and that’s what did it.
Otherwise, she’d have stayed on the couch until she fell back asleep tomorrow morning. But, the cough persisted, and she had no choice but to rouse herself and traipse into the kitchen for a spoon and the medicine.
She chose a tablespoon, unscrewed the cap, and carefully filled the spoon with the cough syrup. The taste was nothing at all like cherries. But the coating was soft as it lined her throat, and though the bottle lied about some things, it did the one trick she needed it to: it stopped her cough.
When she went to put the spoon in the sink, she was reminded of Ada Lee, earlier that afternoon. And, there, among the expected mess, she found a little surprise.
The casserole dish. Ada Lee had eaten every bite. There it sat, in the sink, couching two soiled plates, the two coffee cups, and the fork.
Ada Lee had left nothing for Margaret Alice to eat. She supposed what Ada Lee hadn’t eaten herself, she’d wrapped up and taken to Daub.
All the better, Margaret Alice thought, but still…
She turned on the hot water and kneeled down to get the dish detergent. No use in letting it sit in the sink. She squirted a fair amount into the hot water and agitated the water with her hand, to stir up the suds.
            The heat of the water felt good on her skin. She placed both her hands in the hot water and left them there a long moment.
Then, as was her way, she plopped the fork in first and then the plates, with the cups on top. She washed each item, each cup, much more carefully than she usually would have, and rinsed them, setting them in the wire drain.
Then, she picked up the casserole dish. Ada Lee—
The owl hooted.
Margaret Alice jumped, dropping the casserole dish back into the sink as she turned to see what the time was.
She stared at the owl, a few long seconds, bothered by the fact that the blame thing should even startle her after all these years.
Six o’clock.
She reached down to grab the casserole dish and noticed that it now had a small but deep crack, square in the middle of the bottom of it. She held it up closer to her eyes and remarked to herself how thick the glass on the bottom was, to sustain such a crack without breaking.
“Damn it,” Margaret Alice whispered. It wouldn’t cost but ten or twelve dollars but now, on top of being left without a bite of casserole, she would have to pay for a new dish, and so Margaret Alice did the only thing she felt like she could do.
She dropped it a second time. And then, a third time.  
The crack in the Pyrex widened, but the dish held.
Impressed, she finished washing it and rinsed it. Then, laid it softly over the rest of the drying dishes in the wire drain, feeling better than she had in a week.

She dried her hands and went down the hall to turn the thermostat back down to 75.

T.K. LEE is an award-winning member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Society for Stage Directors and Choreographers. In addition to writing plays, he is a published poet and a Pushcart-nominated writer of short fiction. He currently resides in Mississippi.


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