“Okay, Mom,” Aunt Mae said, “show me how to make cornbread.”
I bit my lip. Muh had been gatherin’ up the fixins for a gumbo, and my job was to catch the chickens and wring their necks. Then we dipped them in a pot of hot water to make pluckin’ ’em easy. After we plucked ’em, we took the guts out, and put the soft eggs in a bowl, for later. Soft eggs is the ones the chicken aint laid yet, and there aint nothin’ better tastin’ than them, trust me. Well, maybe turtle eggs, cuz it got that seafood flavor built in.
Anyhow, we singed the chickens to get rid of the pinfeathers. I had to be careful, cuz Muh didn’t like stains on her new gas stove. Now in the middle of alla this, Aunt Mae had come over, askin’ Muh to show her how to make cornbread. “Alfred been after me all week to get you to show me how,” she said. “Aint nothin’ wrong with my cornbread, I do it just like they say on the box.”
“Box?” Muh asked, “What box?”
“The Wonder Muffin box,” Aunt Mae answered.
Muh sighed, and rubbed her temples. “You mean to tell me,” she said, slow-like, “that you make box cornbread?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, “but Alfred don’t like it. He say it don’t taste right. He threw out my last batch, right offa the front po’ch. Hit the cat inna haid with it, flipped po’ Fluffy twice.”
“Well hoo-ray for Alfred,” Muh muttered. She looked at Aunt Mae. “Baby, I tell you what. I’m right in the middle o’ fixin’ some gumbo. Once we get it to cookin’, I’ll show you how to make cornbread.” She looked over her glasses. “The right way.”
“But, hol’ yo hosses,” Muh told her. I still had two chickens left to cut, and Muh had sat down to drink some coffee while she waited. The big iron kettle was on the stove, sizzlin’ the onions, pars’ly, garlic, an’ bell pepper, real slow, so it didn’t scorch. “Stir that, Mae, whilst I sip my coffee,” she said.
I stopped, an’ looked at Muh. “You feelin’ okay?” I asked.
“I’m feelin’ fine, son,” she answered, “You cut the chickin’, and Mae stir my seasonin’.” She chuckled. “I got me two hosses to pull my wagon.”
I wanted to tell her that one of her hosses had a bum leg, but I kept my mouth shut.
You see, Aunt Mae caint cook. Aint no nice way to put it, other than that. Aunt Mae aint had no bitness near nobody’s stove. One time, she tried to make baked chicken with rice dressin’, and for some reason, don’t ask me why, she thought it was a good idea to pack the rice in the chicken.
I aint lyin’, raw rice!
Uncle Alfred told us later, “I kept hearin’ her open the oven do’r, and sayin’, ‘What’s takin’ this rice so long?’ Afterwhile, I was gettin’ ready to pass out, so’s I went to see what’s keepin’ dinner. I op’ de oven, an’ all I see is half-cook rice an’ burnt chickin! I holler, ‘Mae! What the hell you doin’?’ She come runnin’ from the back room, whoopin’ an’ hollerin’, ‘Get outta my stove! Get outta my stove!’ I was nice about it, Nephew, the cops had already been to the house day befo’ yestiddy, so I didn’t want ta start nothin’ fresh, y’know? I grabs my hat, an’ tells Mae, ‘I be back, I’m goin’ for a paper.’ You know she had the nerve to tell me to get back inna half an hour, so my dinner won’t get cold? Shee-it, if I’da had time to pack some drawers, I’d still be gone!”
I asked him, ‘Well, how did it taste?”
He just looked at me for a minute, and he says, ‘It’s still in the icebox, if ya wants some.”
I says, “But Unc, that was about a year ago, wasn’t it?”
He says, “And?”
Well, Mae commence to stirrin, an’ I gets to cuttin’, but I kept my eye on Mae. Muh did, too, but she wasn’t too obvious about it. She wasn’t foolin’ me none, though. Company was comin’, and gumbo was gumbo, and Muh wasn’t about to let some triflin’ woman like Aunt Mae ruin her reputation for cookin’, no sir.
Mae stirrin’ an’ stirrin’ like she really doin’ something, but it’s just onions and garlic, nothing special. Then she gets to humming while she stirring, and I knew that wouldn’t last too long, cuz Mae like them rotgut blues, fellas like Sugar Shank and Lowdown Sam, you know, them nasty niggas. She start humming, and then, sure enough, she start singing, under her breath, on the first. Them bell pepper fumes must’a rized in her head, cuz the song started to get good to her, and she started dippin’ and swayin’ like she was in the club. She sang:
“I’m comin’ like a freight train, can you hear my whistle blow?
I’m comin’ like a freight train, baby, can you hear my whistle blow?”
Red light mean stop! (chank, chank, changggg!) Green light mean go, baby go!”
I didn’t say nothin, but I snuck a look at Muh. She opened her mouth to say something, but then she press her lips tight, and she hang on, I guess she want to see if Mae realize where she was. She didn’t, of course, just kept on singing:
“Wear yo’ black drawers, baby…yo’ daddy comin’ to call..(hey!)
Wear yo’ black drawers, baby…yo’ daddy comin’ to call…
Black drawers is all-right! (chank, chank, changggg!) Soon be none a-tall…”
“MAE!” Muh hollered. “What is wrong wit’ you? Singin’ the blues all under the people’s clothes! In front of the chile, at dat! Loose here, devil! Satan, the Lawd rebuke ya! Gimmie my spoon, gal, have my gumbo all full of the debbil! Move, gal! Can’t even drink a cuppa coffee in peace, without ol’ slewfoot! Move, I say!”
Mae looked at me under-eyed, like she was tryin’ to figger a way of makin’ it my fault. I was doing my best not to laugh, cuz I saw that one comin’ a mile off, just like that train. I put my eyes on my chicken, cuz if I was to look at either Muh or Mae right now, the jig was up. Mae slouched down in the chair and folded her arms like she was mad, but she kept quiet. Muh was still grumbling about the devil, and Mae knew if somebody flipped Muh a nickel, she’d a’noint Mae with some oil inna Name of Jesus, and then the fur would fly. Besides, she still didn’t know how to make cornbread, and between Alfred and Fluffy, she wouldn’t have no peace in her house until she did.
“The very i-dea,” Muh muttered, as I handed her the last of the chicken. “Get me the skillet,” she commanded, and as I bent over into the cabinet to retrieve it, I could see Aunt Mae’s bony fingers digging in her purse, kinda sly-like. I knew what it was. Mae was a cigarette fiend.
Pall Mall, unfiltered. Yep, them’s the one.
I began to grin. If Aunt Mae thought Muh was gonna let her cook AND smoke in her kitchen, she had another thought coming.
“Where’s that skillet, chile? What’s takin’ you–” she stopped in mid-sentence. I straightened up. Muh was staring at Mae, who had stuck that Pall Mall in the corner of her mouth. She had a habit of dangling it while she talked, and I always wanted to ask he just how did she do that, but not today. Not now, anyway.
“Mae,” Muh said quietly, “you kin learn how to make cornbread here, or you kin smoke at yo’ house. Which one you want?”
Mae plucked the cigarette out of her mouth, and stuck it behind her ear. Muh sighed, a real deep one. “Hand me the greeze, baby, so we kin get this chicken browned and in the pot. You payin’ ‘tention, Mae?”
All of a sudden, the phone rang, and Muh picked it up.
“Hello? Oh, hi, Abie. I’m fine, I suppose…yo’ sister-in-law in here, and I’m showin’ her how to make cornbread…what ‘cha mean, ‘who’? How many sister-in laws you got? Yes, Mae! Huh? No, I will not wait ’til you gits here… What? You’ll be here in five minutes? Uh-huh…all right, then, bye.” She looked at me. “Yo’ momma on her way,” she said.
I got to thinkin, then. Momma was comin’ over to watch the show, and I didn’t blame her. I could’a sold tickets to this ‘un, but there was a problem. Aunt Mae needed a cigarette, and a way to smoke one, otherwise she was gonna get all jittery and snappish, and that wouldn’t do, not a-tall. Between Muh and Momma, Aunt Mae didn’t stand a chance without a smoke in the next few minutes. I looked outta the window, and bless my soul, Uncle Alfred was sittin’ on his front porch, readin’ a newspaper. I said, “You might want to go see what Uncle Alfred wants.”
She answered me, real short-like, “I ain’t studyin’ bout Alfred. He want somethin’ he get it for hisself.”
I looked at her. I had half a mind to keep quiet and let the monkey swing, but I felt kinda sorry for Aunt Mae. I says, real slow this time, “Aunt Mae, you might want to go outside, and see what Uncle Alfred want, and then come back and make yo’ cornbread.”
She opened her mouth to answer me, smart-like, then the light bulb came on. She gathered up her purse and got up quick and headed toward the door. “I’ll be back inna minute, Mom!” Didn’t even say thank you, but I didn’t ‘spect her to. She done figgered it was her idea by now, that’s just how she was.
I watched out of the window as she clattered across the street towards her house, a cloud of smoke billowing around her head. Muh said, “Baby, Alfred married that gal whilst he was livin’ in Texas. Time I met her, it was too late to warn ‘im.” She pointed her finger at me. “Boy, you know Grandmomma love you. But if you evah bring home a triflin’ woman like dat one…” she paused, “I’ll beat ya so bad, there be nothin’ left to ya but the greeze spot, y’hear?”
“Okay, Mom,” Aunt Mae said, “Show me how to make cornbread.” I was leaning on the cabinet by the kitchen sink. Momma had done made her way in, and made her perch in the rockin’ chair near the door, and tryin’ her best to keep a straight face. Muh was sittin’ next to the table, right by the stove, and Aunt Mae was standin’ up at the table.
Muh said, “First thing you gonna need is some flour and cornmeal.”
Mae looked at me, and do you know that old sow had the nerve to say, “You heard her, boy, you need some flour and cornmeal.”
I opened my mouth to answer her, but Momma beat me to the punch. “Mae,” she said, “He aint the one Muh was talkin’ to.”
Mae answered, “Mebbe not, but he need to learn dis, too.”
Momma replied, “He already know how, Mae.”
Good. Mae had a bad habit of tryin’ to order people around, but she was pickin’ figs offa the wrong tree today, trust me…
Well, bless my soul, twenny minutes later, we was all sweatin’ bricks. Aunt Mae had poked a hole in the sifter, broke three wood spoons, and spilled a half-pan of cornbread batter in the bottom of the oven.
Yes, ma’am, Muh’s brand-new gas oven.
Good thing Muh had put some tinfoil on the bottom, or she’d be facin’ a murder rap. As it was, Muh had to take a dose of her pressure medicine, yellin’ at Mae and Momma at the same time: “Go outside and smoke! Go!, I said! Go smoke a cig’rette! Go-smoke-a-cig’rette! And Abie, if you don’t stop laughin’, I’m gonna sen’ you out with her! Raise the window, let the smoke outta here! Tomorra’s Sunday, y’all all goin’ on the altar!”
Finally, Aunt Mae came back in, Momma stopped laughin’, and the pan of batter was in the oven, with a new sheet of tinfoil, of course. Muh glared at us. “Who’s idea was this, anyway?” she asked. Aunt Mae look up at the ceiling, like she didn’t know, then the lid on the gumbo pot clattered a bit, and Mae popped up, like she was gonna fiddle with it. Muh picked up the flyswatter. “I dare ya,” she said.
Supper was good that night. The gumbo was rich and thick, and fulla yardbird, homemade sausage, shrimp and oysters. ‘Round about my third bowl, Uncle Alfred and Aunt Mae came in. “Hidy, folks,” Uncle Alfred said, “I could smell it outside. Pass me a bowl.”
“Go wash yo’ hands, Alfred.” Muh hadn’t quite cooled off.
“Yas, ma’am,” he answered, and he had a glint in his eye that usually meant he was gonna start some mess. “Boy,” he said to me, “I hear there was some cookin’ goin’ on ‘round these parts. That so?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Yeah, I heard ‘bout it, ‘deed I did,” he said with a wink at me. “Mom, I hear you had a lil’ mis-hap with yo’ new stove. Mae tried to stop ya, but you went and spilt the co’nbread daid in de fire. Messin’ up yo’ new stove like dat, Mom, don’t make no sense. Just don’t make no sense. Good thing Mae was here, could’a been a lot worse. ” He began to chuckle. “Yas-suh, could’a been a whole lot worse!”
Muh got up, real slow-like, and went to stirrin’ in the trash can. “What’cha doin’, Mom?” Alfred asked, still laughing.
Muh came back to the table and sat, holding the broken forks in her hand. She arranged ‘em in a straight line, then sat back, a grim look on her face. “I’m givin’ you somethin’ to think about, when you layin’ in yo’ coffin,” she said. The table grew quiet. Muh got up, a look of satisfaction on her face. “I’m goin’ to bed,” she said, “But befo’ I go, let me tell you sump’tin. Next time you sen’ dat simple-minded heifer back to my house for a cookin’ lesson, I’m gonna break both yo’ necks, y’heah?”
She walked off, and Momma began to giggle. Alfred looked at Mae. “Now, Alfred,” she began, “You know—“
“Hush!” he said, reaching for his pipe, “You done yo’ share of lyin’ for today.” He looked at Momma, who had tears comin’ out of her eyes, she was laughin’ so hard. “Aint no need’a askin’ you, take you five hours to tell the story,” he said. Then he turned to me. “Nephew, I saw you killin’ the chickens, so I knows you were here,” he said, “Now tell me what happened, an’ don’t pull no punches,” he said, with a look at Aunt Mae, who had done started diggin’ in her purse.
“You sure?” I asked.
He sighed, and lit his pipe. “I never ast a question I’se skeert to hear the answer to,” he replied, “And she done already lied to me, so nothin’ you say gonna make it worse,” he said, glaring at Mae, “so tell me.”
I started to tell him, but Momma kept bustin’ out laughin’, so it took awhile. When I told him about how Aunt Mae stuck the fork through the sifter, he held up a hand. “Stop,” he said, “Just stop for a minute. Abie, will you please be quiet? Why in the hell would somebody stick a fork in a sifter? And why did Mom let her do that?”
“Muh was in the bathroom,” I answered, “and Aunt Mae was workin’ the sifter, an’ all of a sudden, she say, ‘These holes too doggone small,’ and ‘fo I could stop her, she grab the fork, and stuck ‘er in.”
“Them holes was too dam small,” Aunt Mae grumbled, “Take all dam day to sift two cuppa flour. An’ why the hell you gotta sif’ it to begin wit’? Don’t the bag say pre-sifted? You think I’ma set here with all yo’ people and let ‘em run me down, and I ain’t gonna defen’ myself?”
Uncle Alfred answer her, he says, “Aint no need-a you defendin’ yoself in here, aint nobody fightin’ with ya.” He puffed on his pipe. “Nope, aint no fightin’ goin’ on in here. Cross the street, now, thassa different story. We goin’ to Mad’son Square Garden inna few minutes, act like Sonny Liston an’ Floyd Patterson, yessir, Sonny an’ Floyd, Floyd an’ Sonny, bang, bang, boom, boom!” He puffed on his pipe, calm as could be.
“Mae, you gonna take that?” Aunt Leese said. Aunt Leese was my momma’s oldest sister. She had been married the longest, got married when she was fourteen, don’t ask me why. Back then, courthouse didn’t ask for birth certif’cates or nothin’, if you looked kinda’ young, they made yo’ momma or daddy sign, an’ that was that. She was kinda like one of them pioneer wimmen, she raise chickens and ducks, plant big garden, vegatables an’ such, did wimmens hair with a flat iron an’ hot comb, an’ between that and her husband drivin’ a cab, they did pretty good.
Anyways, she was pushin’ the fire, mostly to get Aunt Mae stirred up. We all knew Uncle Alfred wouldn’t actually hit Aunt Mae, not ‘less she hit him first, an’ even then he’d just slap her to get her offa him. “I wouldn’t let no man tell me I couldn’t go to my house,” she said, foldin’ her arms. “I’d buss him one in the chops, see how he like dat.”
“Don’t tell him nothin’,” Aunt Mae said, slouchin’ in her seat. I was a bit puzzled, cuz Aunt Leese wasn’t talkin’ to him, she was talkin’ to her, but you know how that is. “Don’t tell him schit. He talkin’ bout Sonny and Floyd, he gonna need Sonny and Floyd to pull me offa him. Nigga thank I’ma let him beat me up behind some cornbread, he done loss his mind!”
“Mae, you aint gonna do nothin’,” Aunt Lezlie said. Yes, Leese and Lezlie, two different people. Don’t ask me how they kept it straight growin’ up, I wasn’t there. “You gonna sit there while Alfred cuss you out fo’ lyin’, and all you gonna do is bust out cryin’. That’s it.”
Aunt Do was chewin’ on a piece of sausage. She was the youngest of Muh’s children, and at the time, she was single. Later on, she married a preacher, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. She stop chewin’ for a minute, and says, “Leese and Lezlie, y’all both need to stop that. Pushin’ a husban’ and wife to fightin’ aint right, an’ you both know it.”
“Aint nobody ask you,” Aunt Lezlie said, “Aint nobody ask you nothin’. When dollar roll, penny stay flat. So set there, an’ eat yo’ gumbo. Now, where was we?” Aunt Do looked at Lezlie, then flicked her sausage offa her spoon, and hit her in the ear.
“Hey!” Aunt Lezlie hollered, “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothin’, now,” Do answered.
Uncle Alfred looked around and made a rude noise. “If I aint surrounded by the craziest wimmen God ever made,” he said, “I’m a man inna moon.”
“You too black to be in the moon,” Aunt Leese said, “They don’t ‘low niggas on the moon, you knows that. They barely ‘low yo’ black azz in ‘Cadia Parish, they aint bout to fly yo’ azz to the moon.” We all laughed.
“I wish they would fly me to the moon,” he countered, “Den mebbe I find me a woman can cook me some cornbread.” He looked at Mae, and shook his head. “All I want me is a little cornbread, e’ry now and den.”
“I cooks cornbred, Alfred!” she hollered, “I cooks, but yo azz ain’ never satisfied! Never!” She banged the table with her fist, then got up. “I’m goin’ to my house,” she yelled, “an’ I dare you to come home an’ start somethin’! I—jest—dare—you!” She snatched her purse, and walked out, her high heels clickin’ a mile a minute. She always had high heels on, I don’t know why.
Well, we just sat there for a minute, waitin’ to see which way the frog was gonna jump. Finally, Aunt Leese says, “Alfred, what you gonna do?”
Alfred smile a bit, then said, “Aint no need ‘a me goin’ over there, aint nothin’ there but a trip to the jailhouse. Besides, I done et. Now, I’se thirsty. Comin’, Nephew?”
“Yes, sir!” I answered, jumpin’ up quick.
Momma said, “Boy, sit down. Any place you kin get into done been closed. Alfred, what you got press in that pipe of yours?”
Alfred stood up and stretched. “Yeah, mebbe she right, Neph. I aint gonna be back ‘fo sunrise, mebbe noon. I’se gonna have to fight ol’ Sonny anyhow, might as well tank up befo’ Round One.” He ambled out, slow as usual.
“Y’all know where he goin’, don’t y’all?” Momma asked.
“Yep,” they said in unison. “Straight to the Blue Diamond!”
Aunt Lezlie said, “Let’s give him a half-hour, then drop Mae off in there see what happen.” She began to giggle.
Aunt Do reached for the toothpicks, and pulled a few out, then broke one. “Short stick get to drive,” she said.
They looked at her. “Oh, really, peacemaker?” Aunt Leese asked.
“Yep,” Do answered, “Aint no need ‘a us fightin’ over it.”
“Can I come?” I asked. They just looked at me.
“Dollars ‘bout to roll,” Momma said, pointing at me. Penny, stay flat!”