The Corliss house is a beehive of activity today. Miss Cecelia Sinclair be coming for lunch today. I spend most a the morning cooking and cleaning. Even Miz Corliss do a little a the cleaning. It so important to her that everything look just perfect for Miss Cecelia.
Bobby got to look perfect too, but we all know that ain’t gone happen. He wear hisself a nice white dress shirt that I iron just that morning, the pants I fix up for him, and he give himself a good shave. He wheel into the living room where I be cleaning, and he look so handsome, I feel my knees go wobbly. “Rosie,” he say to me. “You think I should wear a tie?”
Bobby hold up a tie the same deep blue color as his eyes. “Yes,” I say. “I do.”
Bobby nod. He wrap that tie ‘round his neck and start trying to tie it, ‘cept he don’t know how. Sometimes I forget Bobby still so young, he don’t even know how to tie a tie right yet. He get it tied, but it just a big old knot that don’t look like it up to Miss Cecelia’s standards.
“Let me fix that up for you,” I say.
I lean in and undo the knot on his tie. Bobby hold real still but I catch his eyes flitting down, and if I don’t know better, I’d say he be trying to sneak a look at my girls. I knot the tie carefully, taking my time, inhaling the smell a his soap. I don’t reckon he managed to get in the bath on his own and I can’t imagine his mama helped him, so he probably gave hisself a sponge bath in his wheelchair. Probably ducked his head down under the sink to clean his yellow hair.
Bobby look down at the knot I tied and he give me a big grin. “Wow, Rosie. How’d a little girl like you learn how to tie a man’s tie?”
“My daddy done taught me,” I say. And the grin vanish from Bobby’s face. I guess he be missing his daddy much as I be missing mine. His daddy would a taught him to tie his tie if he’d a been here. “Anyway, Miss Cecelia gone think you look fine.”
“I hope so,” Bobby say. He look down at his legs and he just shake his head.
We ready as we ever be at noon, when Miss Cecelia come knocking on the door. I go to answer it as Miz Corliss and Bobby wait in the living room, both shaking like leaves. When I open the door, I see Miss Cecelia standing there, looking just as pretty as the day is long. Prettiest girl in all a Mississippi, din’t y’all hear? She got natural blond hair, falling in perfect curls ‘round her face, skin like the petals of a lily, and eyes blue as Bobby’s. Her lips are full and red like ripe cherries. The summer dress she be wearing look like it cost a pretty penny, but it show off her shapely figure right nice.
“Hello, Miss Cecelia,” I say, bowing my head slightly.
Miss Cecelia barely look at me and sure don’t say hello as she push past and walk into the living room. I see Bobby hanging back, partially hiding behind the sofa. Miz Corliss come rushing out and give Cecelia a big ol’ hug. “Oh, you look just lovely, CeCe,” Miz Corliss say. “As always.”
“As do you, Elizabeth,” Cecelia say, but she brush herself off after she pull away from Miz Corliss, as if trying to wipe off the hug.
“Don’t she look lovely, Bobby?” Miz Corliss say, turning to her son.
Bobby nod. “Yes, she do.” He know he can’t hide no more, so he wheels around the side of the couch, and Cecelia get a good look at all of him. She don’t cry like Bobby’s mama, but she turns even a shade whiter and her cherry red lips go into a little straight line. She don’t look happy. Her eyes are pinned on what be left a Bobby’s legs.
“I missed you, darlin’,” Bobby say to Cecelia.
“Yes,” she say. Then she add, like she just thought of it: “I missed you too.”
Last time Cecelia here, she keep on calling Bobby by these pet names like “honeybee” or “sugarplum.” But she don’t call him that now. She just keep on staring at his legs.
“Let’s all sit down,” Miz Corliss say. Her voice got all high and shaky. She so nervous, she nearly trip over her own coffee table while trying to sit down. “Rosie! What are you just standing there for? Go get us some biscuits and sweet tea.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I hurry off to the kitchen. While I be curious, I’m glad to get out of the room. The way Cecelia looking at Bobby be making my chest ache. I want to shake her and tell her the boy’s hurt, and what’s wrong with her acting like this, but I don’t think that gone help and it ain’t my place nohow.
When I get outside, Cecelia still got that look on her face like someone be pinching her too hard. She don’t thank me when I put the food down in front a her, and neither does Bobby, even though he usually do. I hear Miz Corliss saying something about planning the wedding. “Soon as possible,” Miz Corliss be saying. “No need to postpone it, is there, CeCe honey? It isn’t like Bobby’s going back to war.”
“Yes,” Cecelia say. She start picking at a loose thread on her dress. “Of course, I’d always hoped for a June wedding. Winter weddings are always so dreadful.”
Miz Corliss look between Cecelia and Bobby. “Well, yes, I reckon we could wait through the winter. If it’s really important to you.”
“Whatever CeCe wants,” Bobby say. He reach over and try to take Cecelia’s hand, but she go yank it away at the last second, before he gets a grip. He act like it’s no big deal, but I can tell he be hurt.
I know, and I would bet the farm that Miz Corliss and Bobby also know, that Miss Cecelia don’t want to marry Bobby Corliss no more. She liked him when he was whole and handsome, but now she thinking that the prettiest girl in Mississippi could do better than marrying a man who got no legs. And I reckon she be right.
I wonder how she gone weasel out of it. She will, no doubt ‘bout that, but I wonder if she gone do it today or if she gone go through the motions of planning out a wedding they all know ain’t never gone happen. I hope she wait. Bobby still adjusting to everything right now and the last thing he needs is to have his girl ditch him. But then ‘gain, Cecelia ain’t getting any younger and I know she gone be wanting to find herself a new man soon as she can.
The lunch is about as quiet and awkward as I can imagine. Each time I come out with food, nobody is saying a word. Cecelia be looking down at her plate, pushing the food around, which is right poor manners if you ask me, but I can’t blame her right now. She hardly eat none of the chicken I cooked, and Bobby ain’t done much better. I keep catching Bobby looking over at Cecelia while she looking down at her plate.
As I be clearing away the plates, Miz Corliss say loudly, “Now, CeCe, you must have a lot to discuss with Bobby. Why don’t I just leave the two of you alone then?”
Bobby and Cecelia both get real pale. I don’t think either of them want to be alone, but they ain’t got no choice now. What can they say as an excuse? They’s engaged.
Bobby and Cecelia retire to Bobby’s room. I start wondering what they done in that room before. Bobby, being a ladies’ man and all, got to have at least kissed her on the mouth. I wonder if he done touched her breasts or seen her with no clothes. Bobby seems like he’d be good at managing something like that. But I be almost certain Cecelia Sinclair is a virgin. You can almost smell it on her.
I know I ain’t supposed to, but I do my dusting just outside Bobby’s room, so I can hear what he and Cecelia be saying to each other. I got my fingers and my toes crossed she’ll be good to him. I hope she’ll at least kiss him, make him feel like he still a man.
“CeCe…” His voice is low, husky all a sudden, like a much older man. “I missed you.”
“I… I missed you too, sweetpea.”
I feel comforted she be calling him “sweetpea.” That got to be a good sign.
“I’m sorry about all this,” he say. “I know it’s a lot to adjust to… for both of us.”
“I’m doing good though, CeCe. I really am.”
She don’t say nothing. I lean my head closer to the door. Another few inches and my ear will be pressed up agin’ it.
“It’s just…” she say. “You been gone a long time, Bobby.”
His voice gets all defensive. “And what’s that s’posed to mean?”
“All I’m saying is that I had time to think,” she say. “And I just don’t know if we’re right for each other.”
Bobby, he sound right angry now. “And what made you think that, huh, CeCe?”
“We’ve just grown apart,” Cecelia say. “It’s nobody’s fault.”
“Grown apart.” Bobby say the words like they be makin’ him sick. “Is that your story, CeCe?”
“Bobby, quit it,” she whine. “Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be.”
I hold my breath. She doin’ it. Miss Cecelia be breaking it off with Bobby right here and now. She don’t want to wait even a day. Don’t want to take the chance he’ll try to kiss her.
“Why don’t you be honest?” Bobby say. “You don’t want me because I lost my legs. That’s what I get for serving my country, right? For fighting the Nazis.”
“That just isn’t so, Bobby,” she say. I always knew she was a liar.
“Quit lying to me, CeCe,” he growl. “I know that’s the reason. What other reason could there possibly be?”
“Well,” Cecelia say. “I want a man who can support me. What kind of job can you get now?”
“Plenty of jobs,” Bobby almost yelling now. “And anyways, I get a big check from the government every month.”
“Yes, that’s just what I want,” Cecelia snort. “To be on government welfare the rest of my life.”
“It ain’t welfare!” Bobby really is yelling now. “I served my country and this is my payment.”
Cecelia really quiet for a long time, then finally she say, “I’m really sorry, Bobby. I just can’t.”
Miss Cecelia yank open the door to Bobby’s room and I hadn’t noticed I was leaning so heavy on the door till I nearly fall into the room. Cecelia give me a dirty look, then she march on out of the house, closing the front door behind her.
Bobby be staring after her, looking very much like a man who just got his heart broke. His eyes look all wet. He stare up at me and say, not kindly, “You catch all that, Rosie?”
I duck my head down. “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault,” he say. He wheel out of the room, and for a second, I think he gone be all right. Then I realize what he’s going for. Miz Corliss’s liquor cabinet. She keeps it up high, top of an armoire cabinet, but not locked or nothing. Bobby wheel over and he make a move like he reaching to open it, but a course, he ain’t tall enough no more. “Get me down one of them bottles of whiskey.”
I just stand there. I know I’s supposed to do what Bobby say, but I don’t want him drinking himself into oblivion over that girl.
Bobby catch me hesitating, and he say, “Rosie, you get me down that whiskey right now, else you’re fired.”
He don’t have to ask me again. I open the liquor cabinet and pull out the first bottle of Jack Daniels I see and hand it over. Right away, I wish I picked a smaller one. He crack it open and take a long swig right straight off the bottle. His shoulders shudder, and then he tuck the bottle to the side of his hip. “I could take that for you,” I offer.
“I don’t think so,” Bobby say.
He wheel back into his room and yank open his dresser so hard, the whole thing shake. He pull out one of his old pants, with the long legs I offered to fix the other day. He stare at it, his face screwing up. “You were right, Rosie,” he say. “I should’ve let you fix all my pants. It ain’t like my legs are gonna grow back.”
He lets out something that sound like a cross between a laugh and a cry. Then he grab a scissors off his bookcase and start cutting off the legs hisself. He ain’t doing a good job, but I just stand there and let him mutilate his pants, until he pick up the second pair and start doing that one too. “Bobby, you quit it!” I cry, trying to pull the pants out of his hands. “You give me your pants and I fix them up real nice for you!”
“What’s the difference?” Bobby say, continuing to cut. “Either way, I’m just going to look like a cripple. Right, Rosie?”
“It ain’t true?” Bobby raises his dark yellow eyebrows at me. “It is true!” He waves his hand at his legs. “I’m going to be crippled and in a wheelchair the rest of my life, Rosie. There’s no pretending that ain’t true.”
With those words, he let go a his pants and grab that ol’ bottle of whiskey and take hisself a long, long drink. I can tell the alcohol already starting to hit him. I wonder if Bobby Corliss is a mean drunk or a sad drunk. I’ll find out sure enough.
“Get out of here, Rosie,” he say to me. His voice be shaking. “Please get out.”
I leave his room and take his pants with me. He cut them up, but I’ll fix them for him. I’ll sew ‘em up real nice and he won’t mind wearing them so much. I can fix this. I know it.
I don’t see Bobby again for the rest of the day. I make dinner for the family, and when Miz Corliss go to get Bobby to tell him the food is ready, I hear him screaming at her to get out. Guess he be a mean drunk. “What did you do to yourself?” I hear her say. “Where’s CeCe?”
“CeCe decided she don’t want to marry a cripple!” he yell at her.
Then Miz Corliss start telling him to hush up, that if he don’t keep his voice down, the help will hear. I guess she think I must be great friends with her neighbors and I gone spread it all over town that CeCe ain’t marrying Bobby. Guess I seem like the town gossip.
Miz Corliss come out a minute later and tell me that I can leave early today. Her face all white and she got some extra lines under her eyes that wasn’t there three days ago. Miz Corliss done aged ten years this week.
When I get home, Mama’s got my own dinner on the table, waiting for me. She done made her famous fried chicken. I bet Bobby miss my Mama’s fried chicken. Maybe tomorrow, I can make him up some for dinner. Mama always said that you can’t fix things with food, but you can sure make them better.
“How’s Bobby?” Mama ask me as I help myself to a drumstick.
“Miss Cecelia left him,” I tell her.
Mama look surprised, even though she never much liked Cecelia. She shake her head, then say, “I hope Bobby got the strength to get through this.”
“He does,” I say. Excepting I say it more to comfort Mama than because I believe in it. I don’t know if Bobby got the strength to get through the cards he been dealt. But like Mama, I sure hope he do.
To be continued...