An excerpt from
A Death A'Coming
Her mother dismissed the idea at once. In much the same way Mildred initially had herself, actually. But Mildred was not about to be so easily deterred. John had made her an offer of marriage. It was the only one she had ever had and although she would not describe herself as madly in love, she had little hope such notions might ever arise within her.
Whether his offer had come because he truly desired to be with her forever, she had no way of knowing. Her deepest gut suspected otherwise. That he secretly hoped that by having someone awaiting his return he might be able to inoculate himself against the worst devastations of the war. It mattered little, anyway. At twenty-five years old, time was fast running out for her. And they were certainly fond of each other, even if it were in a somewhat mutually distanced way.
Finally, as a last resort, Mildred had had to use her mother’s own fearfulness against her in order to gain her cooperation. It was a trick she was loath to use but her mother’s mule-headed refusal left her with no other choice. And, as Millie had carefully dipped the veil of obscurity she had created to shield the true direness of their finances, her mother had quickly grown to see the possible merits of again having a man about the house. The meeting was set for the following Sunday afternoon. John would be arriving on the two o’clock train.
Confounding Mildred with her duplicity, her mother’s energy had spun on a dime and she set about ordering Millie through a myriad of tasks in an effort to make the house presentable. Items that Mildred had been forbidden to even touch for several years were hastily carted off to the overflowing shed in the backyard. The room, though small, grew larger. Millie felt herself breathe, her lungs feeling expanded in the absence of wall-to-wall clutter. Windows were washed, floors swept. Pockets of dust were chased out the doorway and off the porch. A mood of gaiety—as foreign to them as tropical weather—moved into the house, brightening the tired upholstery on the newly emancipated sofa and warming the chill of the incessant wind blowing through the sawdust-filled walls.
“But Millie,” her mother said suddenly, her voice stricken. “What of this?”
She indicated the sagging bed-frame that held her. Millie marveled at how long it had taken to dawn on her mother that having a full-size bed gobbling up most of the space in the room was not really a normal furniture arrangement. But then, to be fair, she had to admit that it had taken her a while to realize it herself. The bed, and her mother’s constant internment upon it, had indeed become normal in the constant abnormality of their lives together.
“Don’t worry, Mother. John is a kind man. And he’ll have to get used to this if we’re all to live together.”
“But I feel foolish–”
“Rubbish you can’t help–”
“No. No, Millie. I don’t want him to see me this way—”
Mildred could feel a fight coming; the panic rising in her mother’s face a tidal-wave of irrational fear that promised to sweep both of them away along with any hope of a better future.
“All right, Mother. All right. Settle yourself, will you.” She rubbed her neck and shoulders, sighing heavily as she surveyed the room. It felt darker suddenly, as if a cloud had once again crept across the sky. “What of the sofa? It’s mostly clear now. Do you think we could get you onto there?”
“I think so, Millie,” her mother brightened. “I think you could–”
“But you’ll have to help me, Momma. It’s no good for either of us if I put my back out again.”
“But what will I wear, Millie? I can’t have him see me in my nightdress–”
Mildred’s exasperation escaped her like a steam vent.
“Really, Mother? Why now? He’ll be here any minute—”
Her mother’s face fell with a slight tremble and Mildred’s stomach churned with useless remorse.
“He won’t expect you to be dressed. I told him that you’re sick—”
“Why’d you tell him that? I’m not sick—”
“Well, you’re the one who keeps insisting you are—” Mildred shot back harshly.
“Well, I’m not today. Go to my wardrobe, Millie, and get me something nice to wear.”
Mildred guarded her thoughts as she glanced around the room. It was not fancy but it was somewhat presentable. John would be arriving shortly. She just barely had time to take the cookies from the oven, set the water to boil for tea, and get herself changed into a clean dress. She certainly did not have time to do all of that and undertake the impossible task of finding her mother something to wear.
“How about a cookie? They’ll be warm out of the oven.”
“I don’t want a cookie. I want you to get me something nice to wear out of my wardrobe.”
Millie sighed as she entered into the conversation that she had long hoped to avoid.
“There’s nothing in there, Momma–”
“Rubbish. There’s a whole wardrobe full–”
“Not any of it fits. It’s all got too small.”
Her mother’s face drew back, genuinely confused before a slow look of knowing began to creep forward.
“How could you?”
“How could I what?”
“You know full well what. Have you gone and stitched them all up again?”
“Don’t you be lying to me, Mildred Milankov. Don’t you be thinking I don’t hear you at night. Stitching up my things one by one so you can have them all to yourself—”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t—”
“How’d they get so small then that they won’t fit me? You said yourself they won’t—”
“Oh, for pity-sakes. Your clothes haven’t gone and gotten too small—”
“What then, Millie? What are you saying?”
“Wasn’t nothing. Not to me—”
“Forget about it, Mother. We have to get a move on if we’re gonna get you up on the sofa before John gets here.”
“You’re a horrible girl. Horrible—”
Trying to ignore her mother’s words, Mildred positioned herself beside the bed and braced against her mother’s weight.
“Good Lord, Mother. I can’t do it all myself. You have to help—”
“I am helping—”
“Well, it’s not enough. You’re too heavy for me—”
“You’re mean, Millie. Just plain mean. What sort of child would say such meanness to their own mother? Maybe if you weren’t—”
“Really, now! That’s enough,” Mildred interrupted forcefully. “If you want to get out of bed, you’ll have to help me some.”
It was not something she did very often, holler at her mother, and it surprised the older woman into compliance. A tentative knock sounded softly at the door as Mildred settled her mother onto the sofa then covered her quickly with a brown blanket. Cursing quietly under her breath, Millie hurriedly untied the apron skirted around her old housedress and stuffed it under a pillow. Clearly, there would be no time for her to change, the acrid smell of burnt cookies tingeing the air as a thin flag of smoke escaped the oven. The knock sounded again, and choosing to attend to it over the burning cookies, Millie could only hope that John had not been standing outside and listening for very long. She opened the door with a wide smile that she hoped looked somewhat convincing. John smiled back, his placid face revealing nothing.
He was welcomed by a haze of blue smoke and Millie’s abrupt, apologetic greeting to come in as she flung aside the door and rushed away to rescue the cookies.
Nodding awkwardly, he busied himself with shaking off his dripping umbrella, then stepped hesitantly through the doorway.
“Not in the house,” a voice croaked at him.
John frowned, confused. Millie’s mother was enormous, blotting out a good portion of the sofa and Millie could see that John was trying to look at her without appearing to be doing so.
“Not in the house,” she said again, indicating the umbrella.
“Never mind, John. It’s perfectly fine,” Millie intervened as she clanged the pan of blackened cookies on top of the stove. “Just hang it on the coatrack there.”
“Be careful it don’t fall then,” her mother scowled anxiously as John stood, immobilized, hat and offending umbrella in hand. “Bad enough we got us a death a’coming. ‘Shore don’t need it to be no murder–”
John smiled warily as he searched Millie’s face for clarification.
“Oh, phht. You and your silliness, mother.” She laughed dryly. “Here, let me take your coat.”
Mildred’s mind galloped around, trying to close all the gates that had already flown open, getting everything off to such a catastrophic start. How the situation had gotten that way was certainly no mystery to her. She had planned the visit perfectly well, even timing the arrival of the cookies so they would still be warm as she served them with tea. Her mother had sabotaged her. Again. The woman was deviously skilled in her ability to draw Millie into silly arguments, distracting her away from watching the time and ending up rushing through her days. Mildred chose to overlook it for now, but she was well aware both of them would retreat into silence as soon as John disappeared again back out the door. She knew already she would be the first to relent; she always was. Her mother could hold a stubborn silence for days.
It seemed a bit late for formal introductions, but Millie didn’t really know what else to do. She could see John’s careful eyes searching about the room, gleaning bits of her history that lay over everything like an invisible, tattletale dust. His quiet probing heightened her anxiety.
“Mother, this is John–”
“Well, I pretty near got that figured out all by myself already,” her mother said and they all joined into a collective, nervous laugh.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” John nodded with a slight smile.
“Likewise,” Millie’s mother mumbled. She shuffled about heavily on the sofa, tugging the blanket around her, trying to allow more space for John to sit down. Mildred felt angry with herself, protective over her mother’s obvious discomfort.
Perhaps her mother’s accusations were correct. Perhaps she was a selfish, horrible daughter who thought only of herself. But she knew that was not true and she trusted that deep down her mother knew so as well. Feelings aside, however, her insistence on the meeting today also grew out of a practical root. Love was lovely, but their circumstances were dire and fast becoming worse. Quite simply, they needed John to take them in.