Volume 32, Number 2

Southern Discomfort

Emily Hartzog

Her mother opened the door and turned on the light. “It’s time for you to get up and get ready for book club. You promised last night you’d come down and meet everybody.”

Ellen put a hand up to shield her eyes. “I was drinking when I promised. You waited to catch me at a weak moment. I’m still hungover. I need more sleep. I can’t even think about standing up and taking a shower yet.”

“I’m asking you to do one thing for me. You might think about all I’ve done for you over the years. We’re reading Isle of Palms, and it’s such a nice book. My friends would be overjoyed to see you, Miss Princess, if you could only grace us with your presence.” Her South Carolina drawl deepened with her sarcasm.

Ellen made her mind blank in an effort not to react and looked past her mother, out the back window of her bedroom. She’d opened it earlier thinking fresh air might do the trick. The pungent scent of fall had filled the room but hadn’t done much for her headache. Max, her spotted spaniel, was nosing around in the leaves and digging in the dirt.

“I hate that syrupy stuff. There’s no way my stomach could take an hour of y’all dredging up memories of your pampered Southern childhoods.”

“Well, I’ve got something to tell you young lady. You’re Southern before you’re American in this house.”

Ellen looked around the room with its lace coverlets, mahogany bookshelves and rose patterned wallpaper. She put a feather pillow over her head and screamed underneath it.

“May I remind you that your great-great-grandfather fired the first shot of the Civil War and had a plantation with 200 slaves? He had a military diploma from the Sovereign State of South Carolina.” Ellen’s mother had blonde hair combed into a tight helmet and a Junior League scarf tied around her neck. Her face always looked set for battle.

Ellen moaned into her feather pillow, “We should be ashamed of that history, not proud of it.”

“How did I end up with a Yankee daughter? It boggles my mind. You must have Yankee friends at boarding school who’ve filled your head with this nonsense.”

Ellen took the pillow off her head and began to sing, “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea. With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.

“You know I hate that abomination of a Yankee song, and I never want to hear it again in my house. Now stop that infernal singing immediately, get in the shower, and get downstairs.”

As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men FREE! His truth is marching on.

Her mother stormed out the door before she could launch into the Glory Hallelujahs.

Ellen had no intention of going downstairs, but she did want to take a shower. She rearranged the pillows and smoothed down the sheets, so the bed would look inviting when she came back. She tiptoed down the hall in her bathrobe and stopped by the window above the front porch, so she could see which of her mother’s friends were there. The women were all dressed similarly in light silk blouses, brightly colored jackets and matching shoes; outfits bought at the new Talbots shop in town.

Max wagged his tail as each guest came onto the porch, but they didn’t notice him. They were too engrossed in their polite greetings, with fixed mannequin-like smiles plastered on their faces.

The shower helped a little, and she was just settling down again in bed when she heard her mother call from downstairs. “Darling, we’re starting to eat now so you should come down and join us.”

Ellen hesitated, then decided it was less trouble to yield to the unavoidable. She yelled down, “Okay Mother.”

She ran a brush through her wet hair which hung in strings around her face and pulled an oversized sweater over her flimsy peach nightgown and shoved her feet into some flipflops. On the way downstairs, she noticed some remnants of black polish on her toenails that looked like dirt in the corners.

The six women with their scarves, pins and carefully styled hair remarked on how wonderful Ellen looked. Their pearls glistened, and bracelets tinkled on their slender wrists. They oozed Southern charm.

Mrs. Gilliam asked, “How are things going at St. Catherine’s? My niece loved it there.”

“I’m enjoying it—particularly since North Carolina is more progressive. It’s a breath of fresh air.” Ellen said. This seemed to quieten them down. She waited for a response.

Her mother said, “North Carolina has always been too progressive. It’s hardly a Southern state compared to South Carolina and Virginia.”

Ellen asked Mrs. Gilliam, “How do you like this month’s book? My mother says it’s great and so nostalgic.”

She laughed. “I love the wonderful books we pick out about the South, but it’s hard to find the time to finish them. Didn’t your mother tell you? This is mostly a drinking club—we only call it a book club for cover.”

During dinner, the ladies polished off five bottles of wine as if they were nothing more than a pitcher of sweet tea. As soon as Ellen was sure they were done with quizzing her and were deep into local gossip, she decided she’d made enough of an appearance and could safely leave. She said she had a headache and went back upstairs to bed. Max came with her and looked relieved when she closed the door behind them. He jumped on the bed and settled in for the night.

Before Ellen went to sleep, she repeated her mantra for trying to stay sane in this house: Friends are the family you choose for yourself. She would be back to her friends at school soon.

A group of girls in her class were making plans to go to the State House for the Equal Rights Amendment debate on the Senate floor, and she couldn’t wait to be there to support it. They had practiced their cheers and ordered T-shirts, which were going to arrive when she got back.

* * *

The next morning the sun filled the kitchen as Ellen fried bacon and stirred cheese grits on the stove. She’d cut the toast thick, and the eggs were mixed with cream in a bowl waiting to be scrambled, the way her mother liked them.

She knew she was doing this out of guilt for having been unpleasant to her mother the day before. Ellen’s father had left with another woman some years ago, and her brother Edward lived with his girlfriend in a trailer somewhere in Florida and never called. At this point, Ellen was the only real family her mother had.

After a while, her mother appeared, looking sleepy, in a floor length robe and said, “You seem to be feeling quite a bit better this morning. Did you start with our leftover champagne?”

“I thought I’d make breakfast for us,” Ellen said, “I’m sorry about yesterday.”

“Don’t worry. I’m used to it. My main job as a mother was to civilize my children, and I’ve obviously failed.” It was said without a shred of humor. Her mother looked as hungover as Ellen had been the day before. They all drank too much in this family.

Her mother shivered and pulled her plush robe tighter. “Do you think you could find some time today to go with me to put flowers on Mother’s grave? The fact that today’s her birthday may have slipped your mind.”

“Sure, Mom. And I did remember today was her birthday.” Lying came easily to Ellen; a longtime habit when talking to her mother.

That afternoon the clouds drifted in, and the air got cooler. On the way to the graveyard, they stopped by the local florist and bought yellow roses. When they got back in the car, her mother reminded Ellen that her grandmother’s money had made boarding school possible. Ellen said she would always be grateful, and she was being honest for a change.

Ellen liked going to the graveyard. The headstones sat peacefully in the grass, and the trees and gently rolling hills often appeared in her dreams. Her family had lived a long time in the area, so the old gravestones were interesting with their dates and names. When they arrived, the soft light made the hills, covered with pedestals, angels and windowless mausoleums, seem even more dramatic.

The spell was broken when they got to the family plot.

“What are all these new things doing here?” Ellen asked. Small Confederate flags stood in cylindrical cups attached to the molded stone crosses at the feet of the family’s oldest graves.

“Some vandals stole every beautiful, old Confederate cross in this graveyard, but the state replaced them. The crosses are new and not nearly as nice, but at least they added the flags.”

“I hate the flags! They’re offensive to so many people. Can’t we take them away?”

“Are you going to start singing that damn Yankee song again? No! We can’t just take them away. I want them here, and your great-great grandfather and his father and brothers would want them here, too.”

Ellen’s mother carefully cleaned her mother’s bronze plaque with a wet cloth and laid the roses across it. They would probably be dead by the morning, but she didn’t seem to care.

On the way back to the car, Ellen found herself stepping in time to the continuous loop of Glory, Glory Hallelujah running through her head. She was hatching a plan to steal all the Confederate flags in the graveyard that evening, put them in a garbage bag full of rocks, and sink them in the lake. Back at home, she started gathering the things she needed to execute her plan.

At dusk, she grabbed the spare set of car keys and brought Max along, so she could use the excuse of walking her dog at the graveyard. The task turned out to be easy because no one else was around, and there were only thirty little flags in the whole graveyard.

After putting the last flag in the garbage bag, she and Max drove to the lake, which was also completely deserted. Everyone in the lakeside community must have been inside eating dinner. Ellen hoped they were looking at their food and not out the windows.

She waded up to her waist in the freezing water and threw the garbage bag out as far as she could. Max jumped in to retrieve the bag, but gave up when it sank, and came quickly back to shore. Ellen scratched Max’s ears and congratulated herself on what a good deed they’d done. They headed home, getting mud and water all over her mother’s car.

When Ellen got home, her mother was watching the evening news with a gin and tonic in her hand.

Ellen said, “Mom, I took Max to the lake. He chased a duck into the water and got tangled up in some weeds, so I had to go and save him. I need to clean off the mud he got on the car.” She grabbed some towels and dishwashing liquid.

Her mother said, “Max must be getting old. He’s usually such a good swimmer. How adult of you to clean up. Maybe there’s some hope of civilizing you after all.”

In the two days remaining before she went back to school, Ellen listened to the local radio station as much as she could and read the local newspaper from cover to cover. She found no mention of the missing flags—good that she had gotten away with it, but bad that apparently no one had noticed.

* * *

She had only been back at school a week when she received an emergency message to call her mother. On her way to the phone, she resolved to deny stealing the flags, no matter what evidence her mother might give.

Her mother sounded terrible on the other end. She said, “Ellen, you’ve got to get a bus ticket and come home right away. Your brother’s in the Intensive Care Unit in Jacksonville, and they need us there. I can’t go down without you.”

Ellen said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get the first bus tomorrow morning, but since it has so many stops, I probably won’t get there until late. I’ll call you from the bus station and let you know what time. How far is it to Jacksonville?” She cursed under her breath while her mother found a map. The ERA debate in Raleigh was to take place in two days. There was no way she could make it back there in time.

Her mother said, “It should be about six hours. You can rest, and then we’ll start first thing day after tomorrow. I’m so upset I don’t think I could make the trip on my own.”

The next morning, Ellen sat glumly on the bus and realized that, although she felt upset about the whole situation, she was far from being the saddest person aboard. Many of the passengers wore looks of resignation that seemed to involve more than just the dreary journey. They carried paper bags of food, flattened pillows and plastic bags stuffed with clothes. The only happy person was a little girl in pajamas. She smiled and waved at everyone after her mother fell asleep when the bus started up.

Ellen had packed almost nothing for the trip. She had convinced herself that if she were deliberately unprepared, maybe the trip wouldn’t last too long. She hadn’t even brought her schoolbooks, despite the fact she had exams coming up in two weeks. She hoped this might give her a good excuse to return to school after only a couple of days away.

Ellen had thought she was safe from her family in boarding school, but her twenty-seven-year-old brother had upended her life again. Weren’t all the previous years of turmoil enough? She was jealous of her father who’d made the wise choice to abandon this emotional roller coaster five years ago. He and his new wife certainly would not be coming to Florida. She doubted they would even attend her brother’s funeral if he died.

She never heard from her brother Edward. If someone called about him, it was always bad news—like this, often involving a hospital or a jail. Her mother somehow put up with all his disasters, shedding agonized tears but uttering no word of complaint. She handled Edward with kid gloves and never scolded him about his wayward behavior. And yet, when she had overheard Ellen say shit to one of her friends at school, she called Ellen a trash-mouth and refused to speak to her for two weeks.

One of Ellen’s few clear memories of her early childhood was of what her mother told her, sitting at the old kitchen table, after she had taken Edward to the psychiatrist for his violent temper tantrums. Her mother, choking with emotion, told Ellen that what she learned from the doctor was that Edward would have done better if he’d been an only child. She said she agreed with the psychiatrist, but how could she have known not to have another child? Ellen hadn’t ever thought that she could be the source of Edward’s problems, but she wondered if it was true for quite a few years.

Thinking back on that day, Ellen felt deeply angry. Many hours of her childhood were spent shut up in her room with her fingers in her ears trying to drown out the bitter arguments going on outside her door. Edward’s favorite refrain was, “I didn’t ask to be born!” She sure as shit didn’t ask to be born, either.

Ellen’s mother picked her up at the bus station and apparently had plenty to drink before she got there. At home, they ate Stouffer’s lasagna for dinner, and her mother went early to bed. Ellen sat in the kitchen with Max and sipped the last of her can of beer. It was clear that her mother wasn’t dealing well with the situation and needed Ellen for support. Ellen tried to put aside her disappointment over missing the ERA debate. At least she had the T-shirt.

She decided to investigate her brother’s room, without a clear idea what she was looking for. Max followed her into the room, stepped cautiously on the floor and sniffed nervously in the corners. Edward had left a number of guns and knives in his dresser drawers, but she figured he had also brought plenty of weapons with him to Florida.

Her mother had hung a photograph of their grandfather on the wall across from the bed. She’d named Edward after her father who died of alcoholism when she was only six years old. That name may not have been such a good idea, but her mother liked it. She often said they had the same mischievous twinkle in their eyes.

Ellen found a folded Confederate flag stuffed in a bottom drawer and a few old flyers for Civil War reenactments underneath it. Edward was exactly the sort of chest-pounding loser the old sick South produced. He was armed to the teeth, alcoholic and on welfare. That was ‘mischievous,’ all right.

The next morning, her mother said she was too distraught to drive. She’d gotten a call from the hospital that Edward was doing worse. Ellen was relieved to be the one driving. She knew that she’d make better time than her mother and could use having to concentrate as an excuse not to talk. She tailed the fastest trucks on the interstate and cut more than half an hour off the drive.

The hospital in Jacksonville was a stark white building five stories high that looked like bad news. The interior was a maze of depressing hallways and chipped green walls. The staff pointed them down the hallway to the ICU.

At the ICU central station, one of the nurses took them to Edward’s room and said she would call the doctor and find out when he could come by to talk to them. When her mother asked if Edward was doing better, the nurse just repeated that the doctor would be in soon. When she reminded them that the ICU allowed only two visitors at a time, Ellen remembered that Edward had recently lived with a girlfriend. She was obviously out of the picture, since she was nowhere to be found.

It was strange to see Edward in the ICU, not only because he was hooked up to all those tubes, but also because he was so much younger than the other patients there. His eyes were closed, and he didn’t respond when Ellen’s mother grasped his hand. A ventilator was breathing for him, a tube coming from his nose had dark black clumps inside, and bags of fluid hung with lines leading to white bandages on his arm and chest. His gowned stomach was swollen like a beach ball and felt taut when Ellen touched it.

After a while, the nurse came to suction the ventilator tube in Edward’s mouth. This led to a frantic fit of zombie-like coughing that was difficult to watch. The nurse told them the doctor would return for ICU rounds after his office hours had finished. Ellen went downstairs to get some food for them, but she guessed her mother would be too upset to eat.

When the doctor finally arrived, he was one of those somber types with grey hair, a pressed white coat and a face deeply lined with wrinkles. He said that Edward had severe cirrhosis of the liver from alcoholism and was hospitalized because he vomited up a lot of blood. Ellen watched her mother wince when the doctor said vomit. It was one of the forbidden words in her house.

Ellen asked, “Is that why his stomach is so big?”

The doctor said, “Well, it’s related. When the liver clogs up, the abdomen fills with fluid called ascites. The ascites is Edward’s biggest problem now, because it’s become infected and has in turn infected his whole body.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Ellen’s mother was clearly stunned and incapable of asking questions. Ellen decided to take over. She asked, “Has the infection gotten better at all?”

“Not really. Even though he’s young, we’re not sure he’s going to make it.”

“Is there anything else you can do to help him make it?” she asked.

“We’re trying one last antibiotic right now. If we could get the infection under control, and he abstained from alcohol from now on, he might be a candidate for a liver transplant. But right now, he’s in bad shape and could die at any time. I just want to make sure you’re prepared.” The doctor extended his hand to them then moved on to take care of another ICU patient.

Ellen wondered what she could do to be more prepared. And most of all, how could she possibly prepare her mother? She found a hotel for them to stay within walking distance of the hospital, but it didn’t look safe enough to walk anywhere around there.

Her mother was a wreck. Her make-up had dissolved with all the tears in smudges around the top of her white silk blouse, and the red veins in her cheeks were showing through. Her mascara was gone, and the bright red lipstick she usually wore had disappeared, leaving her lips deathly pale.

Ellen went to get the things from the car and poured her mother a Scotch over a glassful of ice. She grabbed a beer for herself and was glad there were five more because she knew she was going to need them. She ordered take-out from an Outback Steakhouse that she’d seen down the road and brought it back to the room. She ate some of the grilled chicken Caesar, but her mother would take nothing.

“Mom, you’ve got to try to eat something.”

“I can’t. I can’t do anything but sit here and think about how awful this is. They say the worst tragedy that can happen to you is losing a child.”

“Maybe you should take a bath and try to lie down. It might make you feel better.”

“I told you, nothing is going to make me feel better. How could you talk about feeling better at a time like this?”

Ellen wanted to let loose at her mother for everything, but managed to keep her feelings in check. She took a bath instead, and it calmed her down. She drank another beer and noticed it was starting to get dark outside.

She said, “Edward’s in such bad shape that it doesn’t look to me like he could get better. I doubt he could stop drinking to qualify for a liver transplant.”

Her mother said, “You’ve never believed in your brother.”

Ellen said, “You know he tried to poison me with insecticide in a ginger-ale bottle when I was five. Lots of times when you and Daddy went out for the night, he would lock me in closets and threaten me with guns and knives. I always knew he was trouble, but you just looked the other way.”

“I know you never loved your brother. Now it sounds like you want him to die,” her mother said.

“Maybe his life is so miserable that he wants to die. He’s been running away and ending up in ditches since he was fourteen. Your whole life has been spent worrying about him.”

“That’s my concern, not yours, young lady. You may want him to die, but I want him to live. If he dies, I’ll never get over it.”

“The doctor said we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of him dying. I’m just trying to help you.”

“Well, you’re not,” her mother said and broke down in tears.

Ellen poured her another drink and opened another beer. After that, she fell asleep. When she woke up in the morning, her mother was sitting in exactly the same place by the window.

Ellen felt strangely disappointed there hadn’t been an emergency call during the night. She just wanted the whole thing to be over with. Edward looked terrible, and he wasn’t going to quit drinking. If he wasn’t going to die now, it would probably happen in the near future; from disease or violence or whatever. She didn’t want to go through this sort of thing again.

The first thing her mother said when she realized Ellen was awake was, “I’ve failed as a mother.”

Ellen said, “No, Edward failed as a son.”

“I don’t mean him. I mean you. You’re cruel and heartless.”

Ellen didn’t defend herself because she thought maybe her mother was right. They dressed and drove to the hospital in silence. They arrived at the ICU to meet the doctor on his morning rounds. The doctor nodded at them from the central station, indicating he would be along shortly.

Edward looked the same to Ellen. Her mother grasped his unresponsive hand and did not let go. It wasn’t long before the doctor arrived. He seemed to be in a better mood.

He said, “I’m happy to say Edward is responding to the new antibiotic and had no fevers overnight. His blood work has improved, so it’s possible he may pull through. We should be able to get him off the ventilator before too long if everything keeps going in the right direction. But he’s still not out of the woods as far as the cirrhosis is concerned.”

Her mother seemed reassured by the good-sounding news. She thanked the doctor repeatedly and shook his hand. Ellen wasn’t sure how she felt. She had many questions about what to expect for her brother’s recovery, but she didn’t dare ask them in front of her mother. She thanked the doctor for all he had done.

As soon as he left, Ellen’s mother turned to her and said with a sneer, “I guess you’re disappointed that Edward is better now.”

When Ellen didn’t respond, her mother said, “I’ve thought about it all night and have decided that I can handle this situation better on my own and will be perfectly capable of driving home. There must be a bus that goes from Jacksonville to Raleigh. I can take you to the bus station whenever you find one.”

Ellen said, “Mom, I would be happy to stay and help.”

Her mother said, “You haven’t helped. You’re the only family I had left to help me through this crisis, but I would have been better off with no one at all. You wanted your brother dead because he was disrupting your petty little life. You should think hard about what the word family means. You’ll have plenty of time on the bus.”

The nighttime bus trip was going to take at least eleven hours, and Ellen did plan to do some thinking as well as trying to get some sleep. Being a disappointment to her mother was certainly nothing new. She’d spent her whole life wondering why, no matter how hard she tried, she never managed to do anything right.

Her mother didn’t get out of the car or kiss her goodbye at the station, so Ellen didn’t turn around to wave goodbye. She bought a big bag of Fritos and settled in the seat behind the driver. The bus was almost empty, and she had the seat to herself. She’d never been happier to be on the move—the further away, the better.

The more Ellen thought about the word family, the sadder she got. Her mind wandered to Anna Karenina, a book she had just finished at school. Tolstoy said that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. It occurred to her that her family was unhappy in every way, from her father to her mother to her brother, and she couldn’t do anything about it.

A week after she got back to school, they told Ellen her mother was on the phone for her. When she picked up, her mother said Edward had died at home soon after leaving the hospital. She asked if Ellen was happy with the news.