The wind gusted and brought the rain down in sweeping sheets as Emma fumbled deftly with the handle of the screen door. The latch finally gave and way Emma opened the door partway so Viola could come in. Viola, who was carrying a large brown shopping bag from A&P, scurried past Emma and into the front room of the lake house. Just as Emma was about to shut the screen door, the wind violently wrenched the door from her grasp and it blew up against the wood-frame house with a whack.
Instead of trying to retrieve it, Emma simply shut the main door.
“Get in here and dry off Viola, before you catch your death,” Emma said. “Let me get you a towel.”
“You ain’t got to worry with me Miss Emma,” Vila said. “I’ll drip dry.”
Never you mind,” Emma said and took the cumbersome bag from Viola. She walked through the front room and into the kitchen and then ducked into the small bathroom in the hallway and came back with a towel.
“Here,” she said handing the towel to Viola, who was removing her now soaked wind breaker. “I’ll take that. Come on in the kitchen and get you a cup of coffee. I just dripped it.”
Emma took the wind breaker hung it on the bathroom door knob and then turned back into the kitchen.
“I’ve been telling John for a week now that he needs to oil the latch to that screen door,” Emma said. It’s always something with him. Same thing with the log under our house. The tides come up and old boards and driftwood float under there and then end up bumping up against the pilings for days or until he gets under there in the boat and fishes’em out.”
“Speaking of, where is Mr. John? Is he already down for his afternoon nap?”
“No, they called him in to work at the early today,” Emma said. “A barge at the ship yard slipped its moorings last night and they called a bunch of the men to help them wrangle it back down.”
“Lordy Miss Emma, that’s young man work there,” Viola said. “Mr. John he too old to be out there wrestling with barges, especially with his bad back.”
“Foolish men, try telling him that. He’d just do something stupid and dangerous to prove me wrong.”
Viola paused in the living room for a while, as if in a daze.
“Come on in the kitchen and sit down,” Emma said.
“I’m just catching my breath,” Viola said. “And admiring your front room.”
Viola always enjoyed coming over to visit with Miss Emma. The lake house wasn’t large by a long shot. But, with the front room and kitchen really being one long continuous room, there was a sense of openness Viola liked about it, and coziness.
“Is that one of those color TVs Miss Emma?” she asked.
“Yes, but I haven’t gotten used to it yet,” Emma said. “I’m so used to the black and white, I can’t get used to this thing. The color is too vivid.”
“I ain’t got no TV in my house,” said Viola. “My son tried to get me one for Mother’s Day a couple winters ago and I told him to take it back. Everything I need it either in the good book or on the radio. Ain’t no good news on the TV anyways. Nothing but that stinking war and all that killing. Speaking of which did you hear about Bobby Kennedy last night Miss Emma?”
“It’s the only thing that’s been on the news since last night,” Emma said. “I hope he makes it, but from what they’re saying on the news it doesn’t look good. First his brother Jack, then Dr. King.”
“God rest their souls,” Viola interrupted.
“Yes God rest,” said Emma, who wasn’t usually very open about her religion. “It just makes me sick to my stomach, all this killing. It makes me sick in my soul.”
“Oh I’m sorry Miss Emma I just remembered you got family over there in Vietnam right now,” Viola said.
“My nephew, Roy Junior,” Emma said, nodding absently and she reached for two coffee cups out the kitchen cabinet. “But what can you do, he’s serving our country. Sirhan Sirhan, what kind of name is that anyway?”
“The papers they all saying say he from Palestine,” Viola said and took the bag off the kitchen table and brought it over to the counter.
“Another war, another place we don’t belong,” Emma said.
“But Miss Emma you just said your nephew was in Vietnam,” Viola said, wrinkling her nose at the fish smell as she opened the large paper bag and removed a smaller brown bag with a few gumbo crabs in it.
“And I pray for his safety every day, Viola,” Emma said. “But it’s not like the big war. You’re probably too young to remember it.”
“I ain’t as young as I look Miss Emma,” Viola said. “My daddy fought in the big war. I remember”
“But that seemed different then. Hitler was a bad person who committed unspeakable atrocities and he had to be stopped. I don’t know how it is, but this is different now. It’s like the whole world has lost its ever loving mind Viola.”
“We need to be worried about the problems we have here in our own country,” Viola said.
“That’s why we’ll never see a lady president in our time,” Emma replied, as she handed a cup of coffee to Viola. “Because we’re too logical. What’s in that small bag?”
“Crabs for the gumbo Miss Emma,” Viola said.
“Please tell me they’re already boiled,” Emma said as she rooted out two large plastic serving trays from the cabinet under the kitchen sink.
“Now you know me long enough to know I wouldn’t do that to you Miss Emma,” Viola said, as she sat down at the kitchen table. “Of course they already boiled. The shrimp’s the only thing that’s raw. They nice too. Fresh off the boat this morning. Drew and Junior and Mr. Charlie was out trawling all night. They come in around seven this morning and Junior come running over saying, ‘Miss Viola we got shrimp.’ “
With dawn of recognition, Emma shook her head and said, “That reminds me. How much do I owe you Viola?”
“I’m family, they didn’t charge me nothing Miss Emma,” Viola said. “All I want is a Tupperware of gumbo when we done.”
“Well it’s going to be more than one Tupperware,” Emma said. “You must have about five pounds of shrimp here and about a dozen crabs. That’s going to make a lot of gumbo. John and I can’t eat all of that.”
“Well, freeze some then,” Viola said.
Emma finally grabbed a large stock pot and set it down on the table between them.
“Even If we freeze some there will be plenty. Now not another word about it Viola and I mean it.”
“Yes Miss Emma,” Viola said, nodding solemnly but with a knowing but sly grin on her face.
Finally, Emma poured out equal piles of shrimp on each of the plastic serving trays and that sat down to begin peeling.
“Good grief Viola these are some of the largest, most pretty shrimp I’ve seen in a long time,” Emma said. “Is it even shrimp season right now?”
“Miss Emma, we got so many types of seafood round here there’s no way I can keep up with what’s in season and what’s not. All I know is that crawfish season starts in spring and that flounder runs in the fall. And crabs in the summer. That’s about the limit of my seafood knowledge.”
“Then you know more than I do,” Emma said. “All I know is that these shrimp look lovely.”
“They nice looking, allright,” Viola said and held up a shrimp, “but you see they smaller when you get the shells off.”
“They still look like a nice size. You should see what we got the last couple time John brought some home from work. Tiny shameful things.
Just then, Emma winked and nodded slightly to the hall door behind where Viola was sitting.
Viola braced herself as she heard the onrushing sound of little feet behind her followed by a boisterous, “Boo!”
And with that Viola quickly wiped the shrimp juice off her fingers with a dish towel and then flung herself backwards out of the kitchen chair and flopped a round on the linoleum like a fish on Good Friday, before coming to an abrupt halt.
“Get up Miss Viola,” the boy, who couldn’t be a day over five, said nudging her with his foot in the ribs.
“Look what you’ve done young man, you went and killed poor Miss Viola,” his grandmother told him.
“No I didn’t,” he chuckled, even though he was trying to keep a serious face. “I saw her peeking. Now get up,” he said, as he kneeled down and started tickling Viola.”
“Come here you rascal you,” Viola said as she sat up and hugged him. “Look how big you’ve gotten. You eating those magic beans again?”
He shook his head yes gleefully and exploded with a big belly laugh. He was laughing now almost to the point of tears but still tried to say, “beans, beans they’re good for your heart, the more you eat the more you fart.”
“That’ll be enough out of you young man,” Emma told him.
“But Paw Paw taught me that, Maw Maw” the boy giggled.
“Yes, I bet he did,” Emma said. “I’m going to bust his behind when he gets home from work tonight too. Now help Miss Viola up and then go get a shirt on.”
He gave Viola a hand and she got to her feet.
“Actually Viola, I’ve got shrimp guts all over my hand,” Emma said. “Can you feel the back of his head?”
Viola did and said, “he’s burning up. You didn’t tell me we had company miss Emma.”
“He’s been sleeping so sound I honestly forgot about him,” Emma said. “Now go ahead and put shirt on. You know the rules, we wear pants and a shirt when we have company.”
He darted back to the bedroom and Viola said, “How’s his momma?”
“Emma shook her head and said, “she’s doing a lot better but still has her off days. She’s at their house in Slidell resting.”
Viola placed her hand over one of Emma’s and said, “You ain’t got to explain nothing to me. My own nerves get bad enough sometimes. I had an aunt once that barely talked and couldn’t even go out to the mailbox, much less to the store. We all got our burdens Miss Emma.”
“I know but she’s got a boy to raise too,” Emma said disapprovingly. “At some point, she’s going to have to get herself together.”
“I don’t mean to overstep, but last time I checked that boy had a daddy too,” Viola said.
“ Yeah, but he can hardly be bothered, between working and keeping up with her doctors and medicine and who knows who else,” Emma said.
“What do you mean who else?” Viola asked. “Is he seeing somebody else?”
“I wouldn’t put anything past that one,” Emma said.
This time it was Viola who indiscreetly nodded, letting Emma know her grandson just walked back into the kitchen.
“Maw Maw, I’m thirsty,” the boy said.
“Open the ice box and get a 7-Up out,” Emma said.
He did and Viola said “bring that to me Mr. Clifford. I’ll pop the top for you.”
“It’s Cliff Miss Viola, not Clifford,” he complained.
“Stop your fussing and bring me durned bottle boy,” Viola said.
“What’chall doin?” he asked taking a seat at the table and taking a big swig of 7-Up.
“”Peeling shrimp for gumbo,” Emma said.
“Can I help?” he asked.
“Are you really going to help or are you just trying to get in our hair?” Emma asked him.
“I really want to help Maw Maw,” he said. “I want you guys to teach me how to make gumbo.”
“Well first of all we’re not guys,” Emma said.
“Ladies Maw Maw,” he conceded. “Ladies.”
Second of all you can’t be afraid of these,” said Viola, quickly pulling a crab out of the other bag and wagging it about an inch from his nose.
He jumped back a little bit and then said, “I’m only afraid of those when they’re still alive, like that crab that one time that bit Prissy, Maw Maw.”
“Poor dog, she screamed bloody murder,” Emma said. “It was enough to wake the dead.”