First published here
His illness was long, but the funeral seemed longer. Worth Maloney had been a leader, a force of nature, a star in the small community. He’d done so much for so many that every pastor in the little town wanted, needed his time to regale Worth’s contributions. He’d been the loan officer of the town’s only bank, the man who manipulated rules to give loans to townspeople of questionable credit. Worth knew they’d make good. He was a deacon in the church, a member and sometimes president of every fuzzy animal men’s club in town, chairman of the little food bank, founder of housing for local lost souls, a long-time member of the Jubilee, Mississippi’s city council where he regularly and humbly declined offers of the mayoral position and, instead, received the implied crown of leadership without official vote. Worth was the go-to guy for everything in Jubilee.
Then he died.
Izzy, the only child of Worth and Mabel, was reluctantly charged with all the funeral arrangements and her mother’s uncertain future.
After the trying, interminable funeral, after the mournful graveside service, the herd of regional mourners gathered at the Maloney mansion for free refreshments and to show themselves as sorrowful friends – whether or not they actually were. Other fake mourners needed to see the others there.
Izzy transported into local custom and in her proper black dress, circulated through the rooms, accepting condolences, smiling mechanically, and dabbing her eyes in whatever circumstance presented itself.
She’d been raised for public decorum, escaped it, and now was thrown back to do her Southern duty. When she couldn’t stand it any longer, she searched for her mother – and found her missing.
Entering the master suite, Izzy found her mother sitting in one of the comfortable chairs in the sitting area. Mom was staring fixedly at some invisible spot across the room. She didn’t seem to blink.
“Mom, hey – Mom. Look at me, please.”
The older woman, perfectly dressed, coiffed, made up, and wearing her best pearl chocker plus the pearl and diamond earrings, continued to sit in what appeared to be a catatonic state.
“Mom, dear Mom, I know you’re grieving terribly about Daddy, but there are so many people out there. It would be a really good thing if you could just walk through some of the rooms and accept their condolences. I know you don’t want to, but – duty. You have position and must stand in for Daddy’s position. I’ve been away a long time and this crap is pretty tedious, but I’ll go with you. Right at your side. How ‘bout that? We have to, Mom.”
Mom turned her head slightly in Izzy’s direction, but neither spoke nor focused on her. She returned to staring at the obviously significant spot on the far wall.
“Well, allrighty then,” said Izzy. “I’ll make your apologies. Grief and all that.”
Izzy circulated, comforted those who sincerely mourned and mentally discarded requests for her mother’s future political endorsements. As they were finally clearing out, she slipped into the kitchen, waited for the help and the caterer’s help to leave for cleanup and reached into the private liquor cabinet. She’d locked the more public one in hopes of keeping the wake under control. They weren’t Irish, after all. She opened a bottle of Jack Black and took a deep, long swig straight from the bottle. She waited for the warmth to invade her stomach and calm her nerves if only a bit.
When she’d escorted the last guest to the front door and paid the caterers, she returned to her mother.
“Everyone’s gone, Mom. You need to come to the kitchen with me and have something to eat. No conversation about it. Just get up and come with me.”
Eula, the only house servant who remained and who mostly raised Izzy, observed the women entering the kitchen and filled plates of the best leftovers from the wake. She set them on the table along with proper napkins and utensils. She exchanged looks with Izzy who nodded and minimally smiled. It was Eula’s cue to leave.
Mom sat ramrod straight. She dabbled with her fork and scooted the food into modernist, abstract piles. She rarely ate, but, with every other bite, lifted her linen napkin, dabbed her mouth twice, left then right. Izzy watched and remembered why she had to escape the prescribed structures of this Southern culture. She returned to the liquor cabinet, took a gulp, observed the bottle and brought it out to make a respectable drink. It seemed the only way.
“How much do you drink?” asked Mom.
“What? We buried Dad today, everyone in three counties has been here to give you their sympathy, and the first thing you say is how much do I drink? Good God, Mom.”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”
“I escaped for college above the Mason-Dixon line and have done my best not to come back into this craziness. Please don’t try to pull me into your insanity. I’ll be gone soon and you can make up whatever legends you desire.”
“You were always a difficult child.”
“Yeah, because my parents were phonies. I was happier down in darky town with Eula, but you wouldn’t let me stay there. I had a destiny you said. Bullshit. I was never meant to live your closeted life.”
“You’ve been a great disappointment to us.”
“What? I graduated Vassar cum laude and I’ve had an impressive career in magazine writing and editorships, both in New York and California. And I’m a disappointment? Oh right, I refused to do the debutant thing. I wouldn’t enter your beauty pageants. Is that what turned you against me? This is all so mindless.”
“You haven’t been here. You haven’t married the man your father and I selected. You have no babies. You’re getting old.”
Izzy decided that Jack Black should make an entire drink rather than a sip – big sip at that. She dropped minimal ice cubes into the highball glass and quantities of liquor. A splash of water finished the drink.
“Mom, this conversation about my perceived failings isn’t really useful. Have you nothing to say about my Daddy? He’s dead, you know. Don’t you care? Aren’t there steps we should take to finish his business? Jesus Christ! He made you and me – mostly you – the big time ladies of the community. You now have tons of money. Can’t you do anything in his sweet memory?”
“You’re a fool. His business . . . you have no idea who your father was.”
“Of course I do. He was loved by everyone. He was involved in every good venture in this area. He set the example for my public contributions. He loved us. He was everything.”
“He was nothing. He loved himself.”
“Mom, that’s cruel. He was a shrewd businessman and maybe cut some corners, but look at all the good works he did.”
“That was outside. That wasn’t in his home.”
“I’m not naïve. Are you telling me that he wasn’t a good husband? That he had an affair? I can see that women would be attracted to him. You should have put down your foot. That’s not what women have to accept these days, Mom. You had to take your power.”
“You’re as much a fool as he was.”
“I can’t take any more of this. I’m going to bed. I’ll stay here two more days to help you get the business in order, then I’m out – unmarried, un-babied me.”
“Sit back down. Maybe get your drunken self another drink. That is, if you want to know your family.”
“In publishing, that’s what we’d call a very good tease.”
Izzy refilled her glass with whiskey and a few ice cubes. She sat at the table.
“Okay. Go. Tell me whatever you want.”
“Your father and I kept you so protected. For a long time, he kept me that protected, ignorant. Only since he’s been sick did I discover the whole truth. Our wealth? He played a shell game with our money. Everything’s mortgaged to the hilt. I’ll probably lose this big house and live in some bug-infested slum.”
“Oh, Mom, you’re exaggerating.”
“No, you’ll see tomorrow when we go to the attorney. The ‘big man’ is broke, and so am I.”
“God, I’m sorry. I don’t quite know what to say. I guess we could sell what we can and I could bring you up . . . or I could find you an apartment around here that we could afford.”
“You’re such a child. Do you think that’s all?”
“Did he have a woman on the side?”
Mom actually laughed. Of course she lifted her napkin to her mouth to disguise the emotion just like a proper Southern lady. But she really did laugh.
“Your father with another woman? Oh no. You see, being the widow of the most important man in three counties carries an abundance of pressure as well as prestige. He is viewed as nearly a saint. Despite whatever financial issues come to light, he will be forgiven.
“No, there was no other woman. What a disappointment on our honeymoon to discover that he was impotent . . . at least with a woman. But I loved him and he was a good catch. So I held his secret all these thirty-three years. He provided a proper surrogate, a lovely man. We had a husband-approved affair for fifteem years. We were very discreet. We grew to love each other very much. My husband was also discreet. I never knew where he went for . . . relief.”
“You grew to love each other? Who are you freakin’ talking about now?”
“My lover. He was your true father. My husband eventually became irrationally jealous of him. How ridiculous. But my husband had the dearest love of my life banished to a good position in Memphis. And now I must act like the grieving widow. I wish he’d died twenty years ago. Stop looking shocked. You know you don’t belong here. So take the bottle back out of the cabinet. You want it and you’re going to need the rest of it tonight. The house of cards starts collapsing tomorrow.”