On Thanksgiving morning, Lucy Manigault woke up before the alarm clock could jar her out of a restless sleep. In the decade since Gideon’s death, that had become her way.
“Why you even bother setting that thing?” her husband Roland asked every so often.
“Habit,” she would answer. Back when she was working as a midwife, the alarm was necessary. She quit that job after Gideon passed. At sixty-two, hospice nursing seemed a better fit for her mind and body, she’d told her supervisor.
“There’s a fine agency in Georgetown.” She hugged Lucy and whispered, “I hope you can find some peace.”
Ten years later, and Lucy was still looking for it. Roland declared he’d found it at church. Lucy had her doubts. Given half a chance, he still ranted about the unfairness of Gideon’s death. She’d tried his prayer meetings, even taken yoga classes with her three daughters, but nothing satisfied her need for remedy. On this, the anniversary of her only son’s death, Lucy settled for memories. She pulled up an extra blanket and let them come.
That Thanksgiving morning, the dogs had paced the perimeter of their backyard fence as if a hurricane was sweeping in off Raccoon Key. But the farmers and shrimpers knew better. It was well past hurricane season, too late for a storm like that to hit Lee’s Landing.
She wore a new dress—yellow with blue flowers—and her favorite apron while she worked on cooking red rice and collards. Gideon would be there. He’d said so in his last letter. Soon he’d step through the front door, looking so handsome in his Army uniform, his arms weighed down with the things he’d carried home from Ramadi. She was spooled up so tight that every noise made her jump. If she timed it right, the custard sweetness of pecan pies would greet him when he walked into the kitchen and gave her a hug so joyful it lifted her off her feet.
From the open kitchen window she could see Roland shucking oysters. He paid no mind to the dogs. He was fixed on placing the thick knife blade in just the right place. One twist, a quick swipe and the oysters slipped out of their shell and into a nearby bucket, more than enough to make oyster dressing.
Every now and then she’d catch a whiff of the brined turkey cooking in the weathered smoker. It pushed out a thread of pecan wood smoke that reached high up to where turkey vultures circled. They were easy to spot: broad wingspan and coal black bodies riding the thermals, tilting to one side and then another, heads shining fire red in the morning light.
She’d put the pies out to cool when two strangers knocked on the front door. There was a Notifier and a Chaplain. One was black, the other white. Their voices were gentle. Their mamas had raised them right. She’d raised Gideon right, too. The Chaplain said as much: born leader, well-liked, dedicated team member. It brought her comfort to hear him say such fine things.
When she wasn’t crying, she told them about Gideon at the state basketball championship: how he’d stood on the foul line and positioned his long skinny feet just so; how he bounced the ball, once, twice, three times, then he raised his arm and with a flick of his wrist sent the ball soaring in a perfect arc that kissed the net twice for the win. He found her in the crowd and smiled that broad toothy grin. He always knew where she was sitting.
Lucy opened her eyes, rolled to her side, silenced the alarm, and stared at the framed needlepoint message made by her oldest daughter who thought she still loved God.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
That was a lie. Lucy wanted Gideon back, whole and alive. She wanted her joints to quit aching. Most of all she wanted Roland to leave her be so that she could grieve alone. After all these years, he still didn’t understand.
“Wish you wasn’t working today,” Roland said in a drowsy voice as Lucy slipped out of bed. “Bed’s mighty cold without you.”
“You know I got to work.” Ahead lay twelve hours with Thomas Lynch. Locals called him lots of things: retired Wall Street wizard, sorry son of a bitch, rich-as-Croesus owner of Bellerive Plantation, dog lover, liar, sorry-ass father, spiteful ex-husband, lousy boss. Lucy called him her patient.
“You shouldn’t be helping that white man,” Roland grumbled. “Not after what he done to our boy.”
“I ain’t his help. I’m his nurse. And in case you forgot, I gets paid time and a half.” She closed the bathroom door and turned on the shower.
Money and Thomas Lynch: They were sore points between them that Roland kept picking at. Lucy suspicioned it was as much about his pride as it was his anger. Time was when Bulls Bay provided a good living, even for a black man. Back in the summer of ’68, a day trip down Five Fathom Creek produced nets hung heavy with shrimp. Chicken wire traps vibrated with blue crabs the size of dinner plates. Not anymore. With what Lucy made nursing and what he made working odd jobs in the off-season, they got by.
But then they’d always lived close to the bone. It got easier when the kids got jobs. The girls waited tables in Georgetown. Gideon allowed as how he’d do better working for Thomas Lynch at Bellerive. It paid more than flipping burgers, and he liked working outdoors.
Then came the job offer. “It’s a good one, Mama,” he’d told her.
Lucy was skeptical. “Was he drunk?”
“Don’t think so,” Gideon said. “He wants me to work full time once I graduate. He’ll pay me twenty dollars an hour, and he’s gonna help me get my associate’s if I learn horticulture so I can keep working at Bellerive.”
“Son, you got to remember two things about Thomas Lynch.” Roland had held up two fingers. “One, that man ain’t trustworthy, and two, generosity don’t run in that family. You need a Plan B.”
After Gideon had untangled Bellerive’s overgrown gardens and planted azaleas, gardenias and camellias, bald cypress and magnolias, after he’d repaired what was broken and made the dean’s list, Thomas Lynch let him go. “Lost a fucking bundle when the stock market tanked. Alimony is sucking me dry, and my daughter’s big-ass Charleston wedding is over budget. Nothing personal. I just can’t keep you on anymore.”
“It ain’t you, son,” Roland had told Gideon. “That’s his way. He uses folk ’til he gets what he wants, then tosses ’em away like fish scraps to gators.”
Gideon found Plan B at the Army recruiting office in Charleston. Operation Iraqi Freedom wasn’t going as planned. There was a civil war, and al-Qaeda had joined the fight. “The master sergeant said they need smart men like me,” Gideon said when he told his family.
“Sure wish you’d come to me first, son. I would’ve talked you out of it,” Roland said. He’d learned all he wanted to know about war in Vietnam.
“No time, Pops. This friend and me, we just up and decided to do it. I get a regular paycheck and good schooling, health insurance, and life insurance. Nobody around here’s offering stuff like that. We be fine. You wait and see.”
Gideon was right about the life insurance. After he died, Lucy and Roland were fine for a while. They bought an almost-new van. Roland repaired the shrimp boat. Ten years later both were falling apart. So much for life insurance, Lucy thought as she toweled off.
From the closet she pulled out the day’s uniform—black polyester pants and a medical smock with autumn leaves on it that covered her sagging bosom and bulgy stomach. “That’s what birthing four babies will do to you. Still look like an egg on stilts, no matter what I wear,” she whispered to her reflection in the full-length mirror. Lucy straightened the gold cross and chain that Gideon had given her after his first tour in Iraq. She was a lukewarm believer now, but wearing it made her patients feel better and it kept Gideon near. She ran her fingers across her close-cropped hair. When had it gone so gray? Looking more like my old Maum Bella every day. She closed the door and left Roland to his dreams.
Breakfast was usually on the run, but this morning she fixed it proper: grits, scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast dripping with fig jam. A less experienced nurse might not have fortified herself so well, but Lucy knew what was ahead. Thomas Lynch was sure to die today. She’d stay until the mortuary man arrived. Since it was a holiday there was no telling when that would be. She was used to crazy schedules. Roland was, too, as long as she was midwifing. Now he couldn’t stop complaining. “Wish you’d go back to birthing babies,” he’d say more than she wanted to hear. “You taking care of family what’s dying is fine, but doing it for strangers don’t sit right with me.”
“It sits just fine with me.” Lucy tried to explain. “See, coming into this world is hard and messy. So is leaving it. But when the dying’s over, there’s no crying baby to care for, just quiet. And then I feel this blanket of ease on my shoulders.”
“That’s not gonna bring Gideon back,” he’d said.
“I know, but sometimes there are angels.”
Roland had looked at her like she was crazy. “I worry about you, Lucy. I do.”
He sure wasn’t worried about me this morning, Lucy thought as she filled her thermos with coffee. Leave the rest for Roland? He still hadn’t changed the sparkplugs like she’d asked. “Make you own damn coffee,” she muttered as she poured the remains down the drain.
The early morning air was nippy, but she whistled for the dogs on the off chance that Sugar would venture out of the warm doghouse. On milder mornings the Boykin Spaniel was the first to greet her, but not today. Smart dog to stay put, Lucy thought.
It took three tries for the engine to start. Maybe it would get her to and from work without breaking down after all. From her favorite radio station, the voice of a gospel preacher rang out with questions she didn’t care to answer. “Are you sufferin’ from the sin of ingratitude? First Thessalonians tells us to rejoice, pray, and give thanks for all things.”
She shook her head. “Give thanks for what, preacher man? Bunions the size of golf balls? Aching body? Husband who won’t do for me? What you say to that?”
“Brothers and sisters, now’s the time to say, ‘Thank you, Lord Jesus.’”
“Too late.” She snorted and clicked off the radio as she turned onto the highway.
Near a grove of pecan trees at the back of Bellerive, Lucy parked her van. They were saplings when Maum Bella first brought her here, taught her how to cook and serve, and told her about we people: the men who long ago turned the palmetto jungle into the Rice Kingdom and made the Lynch family rich, then built a grand house strong enough to stand against hurricanes and fires for more than a century; and the women who wet-nursed Lynch babies who would grow up to own them; and women whose Lynch babies would never be allowed to claim that name. If Maum Bella was to be believed, she was one of them.
“The law say this land belong to Lynch men only. But that ain’t so,” Maum Bella had told Lucy more than once. “We people own this land, too. Just paid for it in our own way. Don’t you ever forget that, baby girl.”
All this raced through her mind as Lucy loaded up her kit from the van and walked to the back door. Atop the brick chimney, a trio of turkey buzzards eyed her as she rustled through fallen leaves that covered the lawn. She watched as they spread their wings and leaned in to embrace the wavy flume of escaping heat. A sign, maybe? What was it Maum Bella used to chant? Old King Buzzard floating high, “Sho do wish old cow would die.” Old cow died, old calf cried, “Oh mourner, you shall be free.” If only, Lucy thought.
In the kitchen that smelled of burnt coffee and stale air, the night-shift nurse handed her an electronic tablet before slipping on his coat. “It’s all there. Gotta run. Turkey ain’t gonna cook itself.” And he was out the door. Lucy remembered him from the state basketball championship. He moved too quickly. Passed the ball without thinking. Not like Gideon who took his time, held the ball just long enough to draw the foul.
She settled herself at the head of the long mahogany dining table with a cup of coffee and the tablet. Across the room, the portrait of a stern-faced man stared down at her from above the hunt board. She’d never cared for the looks of him, or the dead birds at his feet, or the gun across his arm, or the dogs at his side, bristling for the hunt. How many meals had she served under his watch? Plenty, until Maum Bella told her to stay in the kitchen. “I seen how that young Thomas Lynch eyes you when you serve the butter beans, baby girl. You best stay clear of that one.”
Lucy pushed a button. The tablet sang and came to life, telling her what Thomas Lynch could not. Mild restlessness and signs of discomfort when moved. Comfort medication given at 10 p.m. Released body fluids at 2 a.m. Unresponsive since then.
She still marveled at how efficiently the human body prepared itself for death. Gideon had had no time to prepare. “He was on the wrong side of the truck when it hit an IED,” the Notifier told Lucy when she’d worked up the courage to ask. “Your son never knew what hit him, ma’am.”
Thomas Lynch claimed he didn’t either. “My barber found it. Next thing you know, I’m dying. Turns out malignant melanoma’s just a fancy way of saying you’re fucking screwed.” He talked that way when he was mad. Lucy hated how it made her insides go cringy, but she understood. His cancer had spread quickly. From the beginning his end was certain. Based on what she read this morning, he was almost there.
Upstairs in the large corner bedroom that looked out onto the South Santee River through tall, corniced windows, Thomas Lynch waited for Lucy in the canopied rice bed of his ancestors. He was as she had left him twelve hours earlier: motionless, eyes closed, his pallid skin sinking into the hollows where muscle, blood, and sinew had receded. She pulled open the floor-length green damask curtains and let the soft light into the room. It would grow harsher as the day progressed, but Thomas Lynch wouldn’t know. Speech and sight had already left him. Hearing was all he had, if what doctors said was true. Lucy was a believer, and so, she talked to him.
“Gonna be one beautiful day on the creek, Mr. Thomas.” He’d asked her to call him Tom, but it felt too personal. Calling him Mr. Thomas was a small, harmless act of defiance.
“Once it warms up, my Roland’ll be out there harvesting oysters for Thanksgiving dinner.” He’d be in waders, layered up with old sweatshirts, walking the black pluff mud flats along Jeremy Creek searching for the razor-edged clusters, harvesting only the largest ones, leaving the smaller oysters to grow because Roland wasn’t a greedy man.
“Let’s see how you’re doing today.” She nestled her dark fingertips in the tendon groove above his boney wrist. Out of habit, she rubbed the stethoscope against her smock to warm it before putting it to his narrow chest. There was no rattle, no death rales. This would be an easy passing.
“Won’t be long, now,” she whispered. “You just keep calling those dogs of yours.”
How Thomas Lynch had loved his dogs. The house was full of them when she arrived: spaniels, beagles, retrievers, and pointers. “You’re looking at the finest hunting dogs in the great state of South Carolina,” he had told her. That was before their slow strolls through Gideon’s gardens exhausted him. He had kept the dogs until the specialist’s specialist said there were no more options. His daughters didn’t want them. In the end, his hunting buddies took them, all except for a pretty Boykin Spaniel bitch named Sugar that didn’t perform well in the field. He gave her to Lucy, along with an envelope.
“There’s stuff in here you need to know about the dog. She’s from good stock. Just can’t hunt. You can make good money selling her pups as pets, though.” He waited for a “thank you” that didn’t come. “Anyway, you ever wonder why I asked the agency to send you?”
“Didn’t know you had.” She held the envelope up to the light, hoping it would provide more clues.
“Because when it comes to dying, I heard you were the best,” he said through labored breathing. “I wasn’t sure you’d come after that misunderstanding with Gideon.”
“No misunderstanding. You broke your promise, didn’t even have the decency to send him his last paycheck. If you had, maybe he wouldn’t have enlisted.” She pressed the envelope between her thumb and fingers, again. No cash. Not quite thick enough. A check, maybe?
“So I forgot to pay him. He should’ve reminded me.”
“You could’ve made a difference for my boy.”
“I could’ve done a lot of things in my life.” He let out a halting sigh. “Open the envelope when I’m dead. Not before. Understand? And don’t lose it.”
“Calm down. See. I’m putting it in my kit. So what else you want? Best not be askin’ me to pray over you. I don’t do that anymore, not since Gideon died.”
“Don’t worry. There’ll be no deathbed conversion.” What started out as a laugh grew into a coughing spasm.
She waited for it to subside. “Make your wishes real clear. You hear me? I don’t want you comin’ back from the grave to vex me like some Blue Gum haint.”
“Don’t tell me you put stock in that fucking nonsense. I gave you more credit than that,” Thomas said.
“Not me, but I know folk who do.” Then she told him about her cousin over in Germantown and how she gave witness to seeing the spirit man do in her husband while he was eating a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit at Hardee’s. “Now if you ask me, it was The Sugars and High Blood that got him. But ever since then Roland’s been putting two coats of blue paint on the door and round our windows. Says it’s good protection.”
“How’s that working for you?” Thomas asked.
“Never seen a one.” She almost smiled.
“I can’t believe you people still believe in such bullshit.”
Lucy’s anger burst out quick and sharp. “What you mean? You people. Listen here. You got more black kin in these parts than a live oak’s got acorns. We ain’t you people. We’re your people. Maum Bella was. I am, and Gideon was.” It felt good to spill her spleen for a change. “And one more thing. How is believing in the Blue Gum any different from taking coffee enemas and drinking those nasty juices thinking they’ll cure you of what’s eating you up? Huh?”
Thomas rolled to his side with his back to her. “Fuck you.”
Her outburst had left an awkward silence between them until the week of Thanksgiving when he turned chatty. “You’re a good listener,” he told Lucy. “A man needs a woman who’ll listen. Bet your husband appreciates that about you.”
“Nope,” she said, and they both laughed.
“You have happy times together, though?”
“We do, as best as any old married couple can,” Lucy said as she measured out his medication. “We sits well together, if you know what I mean.”
“Marriage sure as hell didn’t sit well with me. Tried it three times.” He paused. “Here’s what sits well with me. Those hunting parties I used to have here. My buddies and me, we’d eat one of Maum Bella’s dinners, then sit around cleaning guns, lying and laughing, smoking cigars, drinking Daddy’s bourbon ’til we were shit-faced. You remember, don’t you?”
“Can’t say as I do,” Lucy said. Except she did.
It was the year Maum Bella had died and Lucy became a bride. Working weekends cooking at Bellerive helped pay the rent and eased Roland’s mind.
She was cleaning up the kitchen when Thomas Lynch stumbled in. No surprise. He’d always done that with Maum Bella. He’d sit a spell, stand up, walk around, talking about how much he loved his Maum Bella and her shrimp pie. When she’d heard enough, Maum Bella’d pat him on the cheeks with her big knuckled hands and say, “You go on now and tend to your guests.” He always did what she said. But she wasn’t there.
He grabbed fast for Lucy. She moved faster. It felt good, that moment when black metal hit his white head. He went down hard. Busted his top lip open. She checked his pulse. He’d be sore the next morning and have to explain the shiner. His lip would need stitches, maybe his forehead, too. But he’d be fine. She washed the skillet, again, before putting it up, took off her apron and went home.
“How’d it go?” Roland had asked.
“Maum Bella’d be proud of me,” she’d said.
Lucy shook her head and waited for the memory to fly away.
“Why’d you take this job, anyway?” Thomas asked.
“We needed the money,” Lucy replied.
“I’d hoped you’d do me in. God knows I asked you enough,” Thomas said.
“You’re not the first to ask, and you won’t be the last. But I took an oath that says don’t harm anyone. You don’t know about that, though, seeing as how it’s your specialty.”
“Ah, a little truth-telling. So you wanted to see me suffer for my sins?” Thomas perked up as if he was one step closer to solving a mystery.
“That’s crazy talk, and you know it. Did I let you suffer? No. Here. Take your comfort meds.” She liked telling him what to do.
He swallowed the pills then pointed to a small black-and-white framed photo in the middle of his bureau. “See that picture over there? That’s me on my tenth birthday with Dixie on our first dove hunt. God, I loved that dog.” He eased back into the pillows supporting his weak spine. “Back then, everyone called me Little T because my granddaddy was Big T. Bet you didn’t know that?”
“I didn’t.” Lucy sat down in the chair nearest the bed.
“You know what I remember most about that day? Pain. Dislocated my fucking collarbone on my first shot. Daddy was furious. I was screaming my head off when he brought me back here to Maum Bella. She gave me a shot of brandy then popped my bones back in place.” His words began to slow as the medication seeped into his bloodstream. He closed his eyes. “Why in the hell do I remember this shit?”
Over the years Lucy had developed her own theory about dying folk. Near as she could tell, there were two kinds: Arrivers, them that waited for everyone to arrive before they passed; and the Leavers, them that waited for everyone to leave. Early on she’d pegged Thomas Lynch as a Leaver, so it didn’t surprise her when he died alone on Thanksgiving afternoon when she was downstairs washing her lunch dishes and most folk were either sitting down or getting up from dinner.
She notified the family, then called the mortuary. “It’ll be a while before we can get to you,” the woman at the answering service said. “They’re on the far side of Georgetown now and got one to pick up at the hospital.”
Now Lucy was the Dignifier. She paused by the bed and breathed deeply to center herself before beginning the sacred steps: bathe the body, dry the body, dress the body, always honor the body. Her gloved index finger gently traced the scars on Thomas’s face: neat round ones where basal and squamous cells had erupted; the thin scar lines made by her hand, one on his forehead above a wispy eyebrow, the other extending from the corner of his upper lip, pulling it ever so slightly into an angled repose.
She wondered, again, who had prepared Gideon at the Dover Port Mortuary. It was a nagging detail that had never left her. Whose hands had washed her son clean, wired his bones, reconstructed his bits and parts with flesh-colored wax? Who made him whole so they could have an open casket? Who had pressed his perfectly tailored uniform and pinned on his ribbons and medals? They did justice to Gideon. Everyone at the funeral had said so.
It came to her as she prepared to dress Thomas. She pulled the envelope out of her kit and carefully tore off the end. There were more papers than she had expected. A good sign. Hadn’t he almost admitted to wronging Gideon? On the letterhead: American Kennel Club Certified Pedigree – Founded 1884, proof that Sugar’s bloodline was pure. “No, no, no. This can’t be all.” She tossed the dog’s papers aside and pulled out of the envelope a single sheet of yellow legal paper torn from the pad he used to scribble instructions.
When you dress me, put me in that red plaid flannel shirt with the patched elbows. It’s my favorite. And I want to wear the green hunting vest. It makes me look like a fucking Christmas tree, but I don’t give a shit. Put me in any pair of khakis. Socks! I hate cold feet. Stick a ball cap on my head so I won’t look so bald. Take that picture of Dixie and me and put that in a vest pocket. I need you to do this.
There must be more. Thomas Lynch owed Gideon. There would have been no Ramadi if he’d kept his word. And he owed her for a life without that blessed child. Lucy paced back and forth, too angry to cry. No angels would visit today.
Respect the body. You must respect the body.
She opened the bedroom windows and breathed in the marsh air. Maum Bella said it smelled like life and death; a stinky, fruitful, musky, salty mess so jumbled that you couldn’t tell one from the other. Lucy knew what Maum Bella would tell her to do with this mess. “Approach it in your own manner, baby girl. Your own manner.”
Lucy balled up the letter and threw it across the room. “You’re not leaving here looking like some tramp from the fish camp. Folks be saying I got no respect for the dead. And those wives of yours, they’ll be saying I should be fired. No, sir. That ain’t happening. You and the Blue Gum be damned.”
From the back of the closet Lucy yanked out the only starched shirt, suit, and tie in a dry cleaning bag; the stapled receipt said 2012. No one would see the shirt’s yellow collar ring or the gray suit’s small moth holes. The holey dress socks would disappear once she put on his wing-tips. The grease stain that had refused to budge from his blue silk tie would disappear behind a well-placed tie tack. When she was done, she smoothed what little hair had survived chemotherapy and slipped the photograph into his breast pocket.
Lucy stood at the foot of the bed with her arms crossed studying her work. “Yes sir. You going outta here looking mighty fine. That mortuary man, he’ll pretty you up a bit for the viewing tomorrow. I can hear those wives of yours right now talking about how good you look, considering. And that mortuary man, why he’ll burn your sorry self into ashes and you won’t be special no more.” She packed up her kit and walked downstairs.
On her way to the kitchen, she stopped by the front door. “Never use that one, baby girl. It’s not for us,” Maum Bella had told her. “We use the back door, always the back door.”
“Not today,” Lucy said as she pulled open the stiff hinges. Sunlight rushed into the front hall and turned drifting bits of dust into floating stars. From the high front porch she could see the slough pond at the end of the lawn where a great blue heron fished in the brackish water near a trio of bald cypress trees Gideon had planted. The boy sure had an eye for beauty. What a waste.
Her hand followed the wrought iron railing down the curving staircase that led to the camellia garden. Frost had burned the blossoms brown, but on a bush tucked close to the house, she found one perfect pink flower and put it behind her ear. The turkey buzzards had departed the chimney top, and Lucy wondered if they would return tomorrow. They’d be fitting company for the soul of Thomas Lynch, as it was sure to linger at Bellerive before settling with the Blue Gum.
She walked around the corner to the pecan trees, near where the mortuary man would pull up and unload the gurney. This year’s mast was a heavy one. She’d come by tomorrow and harvest the paper-shelled nuts, maybe even bake a pie for Roland. It would please him. She was sure of that.
Lucy Manigault—daughter, granddaughter, sister, wife, mother, mourner, Comforter, Dignifier, and kin—was sure of something else. She would be at the interment when Thomas Lynch’s ashes went into the ground. He had said it would be a small affair, just family. All the more reason for her to be there. She’d wear her Gold Star pin on her favorite funeral dress and a hat, the broad-brimmed black one with the swooping red feather.
When it came time, she’d throw a shovelful of dirt on him. Maybe two. There would be some peace in that.