Ma's Pretties

Ben Brooks filled his mouth with mashed potatoes, pushed the emptied plate to the centre of the table, and kicked his chair back. It was Saturday night and he made ready to go to Almont. He ran his fingers through his mat of yellowish-grey hair, dirt-seamed fingers of a farm-labourer, as he went for his coat and hat on the nail behind the door. He had no team of horses to harness, not even a worked-out mare and paint-bare buggy, such as the “renters” went to town in. That had all gone long ago when the land went. He was no longer even a steady farm-hand. All that was left him was the old house with its garden patch, and the barn, which now housed a few chickens.

His daughters, Aggie and Josie, clearing away the supper dishes, looked at each other.

“Pa, you ain’t goin’ without seein’ Ma!”

Ben grunted, and started up the stairs. His wife sat propped up in bed, muttering to herself. On the little table beside the bed, he saw the pie-tin on which Ma burned mullein-leaves, and the old tin funnel through which she inhaled the fumes when she felt an attack of asthma coming on. Ben shuffled in the doorway and rubbed the back of his hand against his unshaven face. It might go hard with Ma if she started to wheeze, now that she was so bad with her side.

“Is that you there, Ben?—Get me the little jug—over the door—You be careful, now—It’s cracked.”

She tilted the jug upon the patch-quilt, a brown jug, with cattails painted on it. She had won it in a race at the Fair, when she was Sadie Chambers and “keeping company” with Ben Brooks. Her bony hands moved; her fingers felt about. She picked up a twenty-five cent piece and three nickels. The effort tired her.

“Put the jug back—Careful, now—You take them forty cents an’ get them earrings—They must be fixed by now—Ma died in ’em. I want to die in ’em.”

“Don’t be a fool, Ma! You ain’t goin’ to die. Didn’t Doctor John say you was goin’ to last longer’n me?”

“I’m a-breathin’ awful heavy.”

“Don’t talk like that, Ma. We got to have you.” Ben put his hand on his wife’s thin shoulder. “You wait till I bring back them earrings of your’n, anyhow.”

“Don’t let that Sam talk you into spendin’ any of them forty cents, now.”

“Don’t begin a-wheezin’ while I’m gone.”

His daughters followed him out on to the porch.

“Now, Pa. You come home early. You know Ma’s sick.”

Ben hurried down the path. It was a habit formed on the many Saturday nights when, because he took a glass, or at most two glasses, of beer, his wife’s shrill “Don’t you be a-gettin’ drunk, now!” pursued him far down the road. But he did not turn around, when out of sight, to shake his fist in the direction of the house and exclaim, “You old fool!” Nor did he mutter, as he plodded on “The old miser. Don’t I know? Ain’t I seen her a-hangin’ of them old dresses of her’n out on the line so’s the farmers’ wives ’ud think she’d lots of things? She’s cracked about her pretties!” He did not even whistle to himself.

He found Old Sam leaning against the watering-trough at Predmore’s Corners, waiting for him. Like two old horses meeting in a strange pasture, they rubbed up against each other. This was their way of greeting every Saturday night. On the mile and a half to town they did not exchange a word.

On the hotel corner, Ben turned to Sam. “Got a dime?”

  By PanEris using Melati.

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