Notorious in the West(2)

By: Lisa Plumley

 Too happy to abide the gloom, Griffin opened them.

 “Leave them shut,” his mother snapped from her chair.

 But this time, Griffin didn’t want to. He’d had a nice day. He’d felt content. He didn’t want his mother to ruin that.

 “Are you hungry?” Deliberately leaving the window curtains as they were, Griffin strode through the beams of sunlight and presented the care package—wrapped in newspaper and secured with butcher’s twine—to his mother. “I brought you some stew.”

 Suspiciously, his mother squinted. “Where have you been? I’ve been here on my own all day long. The fire went out.”

 Her peevish wave indicated the woodstove. Undaunted, Griffin set aside the stew. He took off his coat, went through the practiced motions of laying a blaze then dragged his mother’s favorite quilt from a nearby chair. He laid it on her.

 She clutched it, frowning. “Only the most selfish boy leaves his mother alone on the Lord’s day. You should be ashamed of yourself! Sauntering in here, flaunting your friends and your strength and your stupid, stupid stew.” She cast it a disgusted glance. “It smells like Irish slop. I wouldn’t want that.”

 He knew his mother still considered herself above the life they had in the tenement building. He knew she didn’t mean to offend. This was the point where, ordinarily, Griffin would have apologized. That was what worked best to keep the peace. But today, with Mary, Griffin had glimpsed a brighter future—a future that didn’t involve endless toil and smacking rats and accepting handouts from neighbors. A future that held the promise of laughter and plenty...and genuine smiles that didn’t need to be coaxed into being but happened all on their own.

 He wanted that future. His mother couldn’t stop that.

 “Maybe you’ll want it later.” He picked up the stew, wended his way past a pile of unfinished mending—piecework was all his mother could manage, owing to her continual “nervous strain”—and started an enamelware pot of coffee in the kitchen. Keeping his voice even, Griffin called into the other room, “Coffee?”

 “Men don’t make coffee,” his mother grumbled. “Men don’t.”

 He offered her a cup all the same. He was used to her abuse. He knew she didn’t mean it. Not when she was like this.

 “Drink it,” he urged. “You’ll feel better if you do.”

 “Humph. You’re getting older. Bigger.” Her accusatory gaze moved from his shoulders to his face. “You don’t need me.”

 He knew how to answer that. “You’re all I have.”

 But instead of the smile he yearned for—instead of the reward he wanted for holding inside the rebuke that kicked to break free—his mother gave him a disapproving finger wag. “You’re getting ready to leave! That’s why you were gone all day—why you’re gone every day. I see it all over your face!”

 Griffin was “gone every day” because he was working. Because he was trying his hardest to keep them in baked beans and brown bread, eaten in their own home instead of in a charity ward. But he didn’t want to say so. That would only rile his mother. Everything got worse when he riled his mother.

 Besides, he loved her. Despite...everything.

 He set down the coffee nearby. “I’m not going anyplace.”

 “That’s what he said, too. But you and he—you’re the same kind.” Another critical look. “You’ve got the same mark on you that he did—the same sign that tells me you’re rotten inside.”

 Griffin tried to ignore that, too, the same way he’d ignored her command to close the curtains. But he was only one boy—a boy of fourteen, at that. He was old enough to work but not to shield himself against the vitriol in his mother’s expression. He was, as she’d pointed out, not a man. Not yet.

 “It makes me sick to look at you,” she went on. “Sick!”

 Her scathing tone dug deeply. Griffin flinched.

 “It makes me sick to have birthed you into this world.” His mother’s voice trembled with emotion. “You’re going to wreak havoc on it, just like he did, and it will be my fault.”

 Griffin knew what to say to that, too.

 “It’s not your fault. It never was.” He kept his voice low, his hands steady, his manner patient. He’d practiced this part. He knew what to say. He knew how to say it. “You did all you could for him. You were a good wife. You’re a good—”

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