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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CUCUMBER PUNCH
By Charles Edward Brooks

 

To have lost is less disturbing than to wonder if we may possibly have won.
—Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native

 

 

 

The mellow bells at First Baptist Church swung into a hymn, marking three o’clock in the afternoon.

At the first peal, Ollie Garston banged her walnut gavel: “The August meetin’ of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Belle Boyd Chapter, will come to order.”

All chatter ceased. Coughs and throat raspings faded into attentive silence.

“Madam Secretary, will you call the roll, please?”

“Ollie Garston.”

The plump, gray-haired president replied in her clear contralto voice: “Present.”

“Bertie Gaster.”

A tall, slim woman answered: “Present.”

“Gwen Handel.”

A heavily made-up matron with dyed black hair tossed her head as she confirmed her presence.

“Maxine Jethway.”

As blond as the lady preceding her was dark, and just as naturally so, prettyish Mrs. Jethway raised her hand: “I’m here.”

“Lois Monger.”

A tart-faced redhead attested to being at the gathering.

“And I’m also present,” concluded the secretary, Meta Rush, in a deep voice.

The president’s blue eyes flashed through rimless glasses. “Six ladies present out of a membership of eighteen! It’s an insult to the ideals of our organization! And where are those younger recruits to the Cause that we’ve talked about so much?”

She paused and glowered at the little assembly. The five other ladies, ensconced in Victorian lady’s chairs, counted like herself between fifty and sixty years of age. As president, Ollie occupied the only gentleman’s chair in the room. The Victorian style, with an abundance of velvet, claimed all the remaining furnishings as well.

At a signal from the chair, Gwen Handel rose, seated herself at the baby grand piano and pounded out one entire verse of “Dixie.” The others rose in turn and stood at attention, their right hands over their hearts.

During her long tenure in office, Ollie Garston had always insisted on “lots of pow” in the rendering of what to her comprised the national anthem. The ladies now delivered precisely that. Stamping feet, clapping hands, and swinging hips accompanied the six blaring voices:

I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten.

Look away, look away,
Look away, Dixie Land...

At the end, huffing with emotion, the Daughters fell back into their armchairs.

Ollie sailed majestically onward: “Are there any old business?”

Maxine Jethway, English teacher at the high school, winced. No one spoke.

“Are there any new business?”

Lois Monger raised her index finger. “Madam President, as chairman of the Excursion Committee, I’ve been in touch with the P.G.T. Beauregard Chapter in Richmond. They’d be glad to receive us in October.”

“Thank you, Madam Committee Chairman,” said the president graciously. “Work out the details as you deem fittin’ and proper.”

There being no further new business, Ollie now introduced the speaker of the day. “Miz Leonard Gaster is gon’ give us a paper on the Battle of Jubilation Creek, a historic event that took place within spittin’ distance of where we’re sittin’ this very minute. Madam Speaker, the chair cedes the word to you.”

Bertie Gaster extracted a bundle of papers from her pocketbook and coughed delicately. She began to read in a high soprano voice: “Madam President, fellow Daughters, it is my privilege, and one that I don’t take lightly…”

By the end of the first paragraph, her five listeners had all begun to nod.


* * *


Some days before the August meeting of the United Daughters, Plink and Reuben Garston, age seventeen and eighteen, had spent the hours between supper and bedtime in their basement laboratory. As the first part of a chemistry experiment, they mixed together carefully calculated portions of corn, molasses, and yeast in earthenware crocks. Afterward, they placed the containers in a warm spot near the water heater.

On the night before the meeting, the boys kept well out of their mother’s way. That great lady was already arranging flowers for the morrow and working herself into a state of fervor for the Cause That Failed.

Plink and Reuben repaired to the basement and carried out the second and final part of their experiment. After filtering off the liquid from the crocks, they subjected it to a process which their chemistry teacher called fractional distillation. It took them some time.

What remained at the end of the evening filled a big mason jar: a clear liquid with an agreeable ethereal odor.

“That’ll be more than enough,” opined Plink.

“Lord, I reckon!” his brother exclaimed.


* * *


While Bertie Gaster droned on about breaches in the Northern left flank and charges by the Southern right one, the Garston kitchen buzzed with activity. Queen Esther, the family’s housekeeper, was assembling refreshments. A cold salad made of pineapple and marshmallows in a cream sauce, homemade rolls filled with pimento cheese, and a varia of pickles made up the main course. Queen Esther had baked her unique peanut-flavored chess pie for dessert. And since it was far too hot for coffee, her mistress had concocted a cold beverage for the occasion: her beloved cucumber punch. None of the recipes for these delicacies had ever been published in the cookbooks put out by the local women’s clubs to raise money for charity. Even Ollie’s civic-mindedness had its limits.

That morning, the old man on the red wagon had lugged two blocks of ice into the pantry behind the kitchen. One went into the cold chest, the other into a tub earmarked for the cucumber punch.

“Plink, you an’ Reuben get that punch bowl ready,” Queen Esther commanded. “That woman’s windin’ down. And don’t make no noise in the dinin’ room, neither.”

“Okay.”

The boys half-filled Ollie’s pride and joy, her mother’s crystal punch bowl, with chipped ice. Walking on tiptoe, they carried it from the pantry to the dining room buffet. Only then did they pour in the cucumber punch. And at the last, they added a clear liquid from a mason jar—a substance whose very existence their mother vehemently opposed.


* * *


“There bein’ no further items on the agenda, I declare the meetin’ closed.” Ollie Garston stood up. “And now, ladies, let’s adjourn to the dinin’ room.” At these words, Queen Esther appeared like a genie and opened the double doors to that shadowy room, where she had closed the venetian blinds to keep out the sun.

Unique bouquets of roses, wood fern, and hollyhocks adorned the dining table, buffet, and china closet. Only Ollie Garston, among all the town’s flower arrangers, would ever have combined these three elements. The dark red blossoms of American Pillar scented the room with their cloying fragrance.

“Lord, Ollie,” Gwen Handel exclaimed as she passed through the double doors, “a few more whiffs o’ those roses and I’m gon’ be downright intoxicated.”

The other ladies received this remark in silence. Of the six, only Gwen ever touched alcohol at all. And touched, in her case, was a euphemism.

Over the buffet hung a photograph of Queen Victoria taken during her long period of mourning. The turned-down mouth and bulging eyes conveyed an unspeakable sourness. Beneath the picture stood the punch bowl, with crystal cups on either side of it. Flanking these, the eatables waited temptingly. But before digging into the refreshments, the guests expressed their envy of their hostess for her culinary skills, her good taste, and the devoted services of Queen Esther. When they sensed that Ollie’s need for praise had been gratified, they pressed forward to the spread.

It was Lois Monger who took the first sip of cucumber punch. She lifted her fine aquiline nose. “Ollie,” she raved, “your punch really hits the spot on a swelterin’ day like this!”

“It surely does,” agreed Maxine Jethway. “I feel like I could drink the whole blessed bowl.”


* * *


Beads of perspiration rolled down Lois Monger’s face and onto her chic two-piece outfit. When she dabbed her cheeks with a delicate lace handkerchief, splotches of powder and makeup came away. But by this time, she couldn’t have cared less.

“Gwen McTavish,” she yelled, “I’ll thank you to mind your own damn business!”

“Maybe it is my business. Or was, I should say.”

Gwen spoke with a thick tongue. “I was crazy about Fred Opie all the way through high school, and it was mutual. Everybody knew it was mutual, includin’ you. And then…”

Nature had more than replenished whatever color Lois had wiped off her face. Against the flaming cheeks, her hazel eyes glinted as green as an angry cat’s.

“And then what?

You lured him away from me; that’s what. Y’all lived next door to the Opies, and you had easy access. And now both of you are still livin’ in those big ole family homes, rattlin’ around by yourselves. All your folks long since dead and buried.”

“And what of it?”

“You could’ve married. Had children. A real family life. But no. There you are in your house and Fred in his, both of you gettin’ older every day.”

Maxine Jethway wore a nasty smile that none of the others had ever seen before. Her black eyes shone with malice: “Everybody in this town knows Fred comes in your back door at bedtime and doesn’t come out again till morning.”

“You and all the other bitches in this town can mind their own goddamn business!”

“Lois, really!” Ollie slurred. “Language like that comin’ from you of all people!”

Lois Monger placed the smudged handkerchief over her eyes and began to sniffle.

Maxine went on mercilessly: “Not that I blame Lois for not marrying Fred Opie. The man’s a failure. She stole him from Gwen out of sheer meanness and then realized he wasn’t worth the trouble. She’s like a dog—and a female dog is a bitch; I can’t help it—that snatches a hunk of meat from another one and then just toys with it.”

Lois leaned back wearily and closed her eyes. Her head began to nod.

“Maxine Garston,” screeched Bertie Gaster, her green eyes flaring, “you’re not the one to be criticizin’ anybody for takin’ up with a failure! If that word doesn’t fit Caleb Jethway, I don’t know who it does fit.”

Whom it does fit, you ignorant woman.”

“Don’t change the subject. A bitch with good grammar’s still a bitch. You were the brightest thing in your class—here in high school and at Salem Academy too. You could’ve gone on to graduate school and really made somethin’ out o’ yourself. But you chose to come back here and throw yourself away on Caleb Jethway. You’ve wasted God-given talents, and you’ll be called to account for it someday.”

“Of all the silly moralizing I ever heard!” cried Maxine. Her large bosom heaved. “I suppose I could have done more with my life than I have, but then who can’t say that?”

Meta Rush tottered back from the bathroom, the back of her skirt caught in her bloomers, her gray hair in disarray.

“Bertie Hart,” she growled, “you always have resented it that you don’t have a college degree. Claimed you couldn’t afford it. Now, plenty o’ folks with less wherewithal than you had went to college. But they had somethin’ you didn’t: willpower and gumption.”

“What do you know about any o’ that, Meta Rush? If we weren’t in your sister’s home, I’d slap your face!”

Unabashed, Meta went on: “So instead o’ goin’ to college, you stayed here and married Leonard Gaster, who you look down on and blame for everything bad that ever happened to you, even your lack of a college education.”

“All these ladies know you wanted to marry him yourself.”

“I did. It’s no secret. I’d marry him today, for that matter.”

“You common hussy, if I catch you even lookin’ at my husband…”

The plump Meta Rush leaped on Mrs. Gaster with such force that the victim’s chair fell over backward. Like Furies, the two women clawed, scratched, screamed, and spat. Drops of blood discolored Bertie’s mousy hair. Gashes disfigured Meta’s flawless skin.

Gwen Handel threw herself into the melee and tried to separate the combatants. “Meta Rush,” she gasped, “you’ve never gotten over bein’ single. But if you’re not married, it’s your own fault. Nothin’ against Leonard, but he’s not the only man in the world.”

“Have you ever gotten over Fred Opie, Gwen?” bellowed Meta.

Gwen rolled her brown eyes. Her throaty voice sank almost to Meta’s own pitch. “Yes, I have. I married Albert Handel on the rebound, but I’ve made do with him.”

“I’d rather be on my own than just make do with somebody,” Meta insisted. “My sister did that, too.”

“Now wait one minute, young lady,” Maxine Jethway growled. “You’re talking about my brother.”

Ollie burped: “And my husband.”

“Well, his two sons are the most vicious boys I’ve ever seen, even if they are my nephews. Their practical jokes go beyond all the limits of decency. They’ll be famous criminals one day, mark my words. And if ‘Like father, like son’ means anything, that says somethin’ about their father, too.” Meta smiled at her triumphant conclusion.

A few moments of quiet supervened, disturbed at intervals by discreet belches and hiccups.

Suddenly, Ollie Garston sat up straight in her chair. “All right, ladies.” The words emerged slowly, with crystal-clear enunciation. “In virtue of my office, I’m entitled to call an extraordinary meetin’ of the Belle Boyd Chapter at any time. And I’m callin’ one right now!”

The majesty of the president’s office did not fail of effect. Shamefacedly, the five other Daughters gathered themselves.

Ollie pushed a button by the mantelpiece. Within seconds, Queen Esther materialized in the double doors, her expression a mixture of horror and indignation.

Salad sauce and chess pie filling spattered the ladies’ summer frocks. Recent tears had left several faces splotched with red. Only Ollie’s coiffure held up in anything like normal condition. Bertie’s and Meta’s plates lay upside down on the carpet, together with the fragments of a shattered punch glass. The room smelled of roses, peanuts, and sweat.

The black woman looked at her mistress, who simply nodded.

Queen Esther raised the venetian blinds and threw the windows open; at once the odor of hot freshly mown grass stifled every other smell in the room except that of the roses. With deft movements, she collected crockery and crystal and removed them to the kitchen. In a second step, she took the three remaining punch glasses, by no means empty, from the hands that held them. On her next entrance, she handed each Daughter a dainty towel dampened with cologne.

“Queen Esther,” Ollie ordered with studied distinctness, “put a pot of coffee on, the strongest you know how to make.”

A smile stole over the broad face. “It perkin’ already.”


* * *


At six-twenty the telephone rang.

A black hand picked up the instrument: “Garston res-i-dence.”

“It’s Caleb Jethway, Queen Esther. What in the worl’s goin’ on over there? It’s suppertime and my wife’s not home yet.”

The answer adhered to Ollie’s instructions: “The United Daughters is assembled in a ’straor­dinary session and dealin’ with urgent business. They’ll be home when they gets there.”

Leonard Gaster and Albert Handel garnered exactly the same words.

When Paul Garston got home, he forbore, on strict orders from Queen Esther, to enter his own living room. Instead, he joined his two sons, the picture of wholesome youth, at the kitchen table, where the threesome consumed the remnants of the feast. The boys had emptied the leftover punch down the sink. The punch bowl now sparkled innocently on the pantry table.

As they ate, father and sons listened to the news, through patches of static, from a little Philco radio. The German government has dissolved all the Masonic lodges in the Reich and confis­cated their assets…

“Dad blast that Hitler!” Paul cried. Freemasonry alone still aroused passion in the flabby businessman. A thirty-second-degree Mason, he had always given other fraternal bodies—and quite especially the Sons of the Confederacy—a wide berth.

By seven-thirty, the neighbors had finished their supper and sat on their porches, enjoying the relative coolness and the lingering daylight. They observed the Garstons’ front door open and five Daughters of the Confederacy, followed by their president, emerge onto the veranda. One and all, the ladies were beautifully groomed.

The five descended to the liriope-lined walk, advancing with circumspection. Her features composed into affability, Ollie waved goodbye from the steps with a lace handkerchief.

Gwen Handel, who lived in the next block, made her way thither with a queenly bearing. The other four climbed cautiously into three automobiles. Bertie’s Pierce-Arrow started and jerked away from the curb. All three vehicles moved out of sight with remarkable slowness. One last wave of the handkerchief and Ollie stepped back into the house.

The housekeeper was putting the last touches to the living room. “Miss Ollie, it’s time for me to get home. More’n time.”

“It certainly is,” her employer agreed. “I appreciate you stayin’ late and helpin’ me in this, ah, emergency. You’ll be paid for the extra time; that goes without sayin’.”

“Anything else befo’ I go?”

“No. Good night, Queen Esther. Thank you.”

The back door closed after the black woman. Total silence fell on the house. No unfamiliar sound, no extraneous scent intruded into the now tidy living room. Every stick of furniture occupied its proper place. And yet, the order of Ollie Garston’s life had been radically disturbed, shaken so hard that the sediment of lifelong habit would never wholly settle down again.

The woman felt her thoughts becoming firmer, less capricious.

I’ll get to the bottom of this if it’s the last thing I do, she vowed. Something went wrong with my punch. My one-of-a-kind cucumber punch! It must have gone bad in this heat…or fermented…or else somebody fiddled with it. Whatever or whoever it was, I’ll get to the facts. And at the September meeting—I reckon it falls under “old business”—I’ll table them.

But in parliamentary procedure, old business is brought up to be dealt with and laid ad acta. At the very moment when she was taking this resolve, Ollie knew that the events of the afternoon would never be cleared away once and for all. As unalterable as Appomattox, they would hover about the Daughters, like a stench, for the rest of their days. For too much truth had been spoken.

Why does the truth always have to be bad? she puzzled. We lie ourselves black in the face to get through the days. We might not even get through them if we didn’t. We can’t stand the truth, and we hate the people who tell it to us. What a world!

Ollie felt that she should solve the puzzle, write down a solution in the neat hand she used for her UDC correspondence. But the task was beyond her. Perhaps she would find time to think about it tomorrow. Most probably not; so much else had to be done. There would be no getting rid of the problem, either. Like a huge dusty cobweb, it would hang about her forever.

Sinking back in the roomy gentleman’s chair, she sensed a mire of old insults, defeats, and disappointments oozing about her feet. And of new fears as well. Her sister had rightly said it: Her marriage had never been more than a make-do affair. As they grew up, her sons were becoming strangers to her. Local interest in the Cause That Failed was waning. The Great Depression con­tinued to cast a dark shadow over the entire Earth. The Germans were rearming, and no politicians anywhere had sense enough to stop them. Would her boys have to go off someday and fight Hitler’s hordes? What a world, indeed!

Ollie Garston stood up and set her jaw. No one would ever be able to say that she had quailed before unpleasant truths. She would keep to the path she had chosen. If specters got in her way, she would just push them aside and forge ahead. She would read her paper at the September meeting, and it was high time to start writing it. Not to mention the talk she would be expected to give in Richmond. But now: Had her husband and sons had anything to eat?

She walked to the hall door and called upstairs: “Paul, are you up there? Plink…Reuben…have y’all had supper?”

When a cracked adolescent baritone answered from the back bedroom, the heaviness of being fell off her like a suddenly loosened shroud. And as she made her way to the kitchen, she felt the swampy miasma about her feet dissolving into thin air.

 

 

 

About the Author:

Ed Brooks

Charles Edward Brooks was born in North Carolina. He holds advanced degrees from Duke University and the University of Lausanne and fellowship in the Society of Actuaries. His work has appeared in Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review, Menacing Hedge, North Dakota Quarterly, The pacificREVIEW, SEEMS, Xavier Review, and many other publications. In addition to original writing, he is active as a literary translator, working in English, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese. He lives in Switzerland.

 

 

 

 

 

     
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