In the kitchen with Liz Dupree - from the chapter Africa; Jackson, the novel
The character Liz Dupree was inspired by the magnificent Laura Dern way back when Jackson was a screenplay in the 90's...she's been written and re-written and now, everybody's favorite character in Jackson
Granny had also encouraged me to take Home Economics and typing, because she said a girl like me wasn’t going to get by on looks alone. In a strange way, Liz Dupree began to fulfill that void left in my life. She had me helping her with the groceries one afternoon. “Jeanine usually does this for me, but I’d appreciate your assistance, dear.” I said I didn’t mind and began carrying two of the big, brown Jitney Jungle bags into the big house.
“My goodness, this family requires a lot of care.” She talked to me while she pulled out vegetables and meat from the bags. “Here, put this over there on that tea service getting ready for the deep freeze.” I placed the cold packages of meat on the green cart I’d seen Jeanine pushing that first night. I nudged it a little and pretended like I was Jeanine for a second.
“Oh, my land, would you look at this sweet corn?” Liz held up a package of the bright yellow ears to examine in the sunlight. She turned to me. “Jody, I’ll have to teach you how to make my corn salad. You’re going to absolutely love it. Yes, you will.”
“Well, I sure do like corn. We planted a lot of it at my grandparents back home in Texas,” I told her. I remembered those hot spring days after the last frost which was practically never, by the way. The only thing worse than sowing all that corn seed was harvesting it later on in August when it was even hotter. One time, us kids got covered in corn worm and Pa Luther scrubbed us in a hot bath and then buck naked, he shook us down with the dogs’ flea powder. It stung like the dickens.
Liz winked at me. “My corn salad will help you get yourself a good man like Big Jim. He loves a corn salad.” When I heard her say that, corn lost some of its appeal. I remembered the William Faulkner story, ‘Sanctuary’ and about the corn cob. It used to be my favorite vegetable and I loved it fried. Now, probably not so much. Before I could stop myself, I said, “Sometimes I don’t think I’ll ever even marry.”
“Honey child! You mustn’t ever talk like that!” Liz’s jaw dropped wide open and she channeled her best Scarlett. “I’m going to teach you to make a proper corn salad if it’s the last thing I ever do! You will have your pick of beaus. Just you wait and see. How are you ever going to have children and raise a family if you don’t know the recipe for a corn salad? Of course, I grill mine. It’s my special secret.” She put her finger over her lips to signify privacy, like she always did.
The idea of having children right then scared the pants off me. I didn’t tell her I’d made up my mind at age thirteen to never have kids, no matter what. I’d told my aunts and they all said I’d change my mind, that I’d see. But I knew I wouldn’t. I was one of those people who considered every potential outcome. Like what if you ended up with a juvenile delinquent? It was like the people who always thought they’d been reincarnated from great kings and queens and never the trash man or people who fish the creek for a living. Liz seemed truly shocked, so I tried to change the subject. “I love your kitchen.”
“Don’t you really, dear?” She looked around the room as a queen would survey her kingdom.
“Yes, I do. Green is my next favorite color.” The kitchen was mint green with cream appliances trimmed in black. There were pictures of vegetables and herbs with their names printed in French handwriting.
“I love mint! Everything, of course, comes from Porter’s and all. Fresh and new.”
The screen door swung open and closed halfway and held itself open out of gratitude to the silver pump door closer. It looked like that old can of bug spray that Pa Luther would hand-treat the crops with. Jim Jr. stood there for a minute, his fat cheeks flushed, beads of filthy sweat covering his forehead and neck. His Immaculate Academy blazer and gray pants were crimped and soiled. The sewn patch on his pocket looked like some sort of crest containing a cross, the U.S. flag and an open bible. I didn’t want him to catch me looking at it too long, though, so I turned my gaze down to the floor.
“Oh, son, are you just getting home from school?” Liz passed the delicate diamond wristwatch on her arm past her eyes, but not long enough to register the time. She reminded me of the Neches River Festival each year in Beaumont when the queen and her ladies-in-waiting would float down the river on a barge and wave at everybody. Uncle Coy, who hated things like that, always used to ask who wanted to be a queen of a dirty old river anyways?’
“It’s so late.” Liz drug out the word ‘late’ as if to make a point.
“Leave me alone!” Jim Jr. said in a frightening loud voice. He pushed himself past his mother and glared at me. Then, he shoved me out of the way and grabbed a whole entire package of Hostess cherry sweet rolls off the table. He tried to cram it into the old army rucksack slung around his side. Boy, that satchel of his stunk, too. I smelled iron like when something has bled a lot. Intermingled with Jim Jr.’s own sour body odor, the smell caused me to wretch. Then, I saw something horrible. It was only for a split second, but I saw something. The unmistakable yellow fur of an animal was shoved in the bag and caused my blood to run cold.
Liz said, “Now then, and all…..tone…” She said it in a timorous fashion, obviously not wishing to set him off further.
Jim Jr. looked right at me, ignoring his mother, and said, “What are you doing in here?” He stared directly into my eyes like a challenge.
I didn’t say anything. Liz tried to pass it off as a lady who’s been trained to maintain elegance at all costs. Charm school, like Babe used to make us do at the dinner table. We all had to eat and talk like we were at Amy Vanderbilt’s house and eating a meal in Miss Vanderbilt’s dining room. Even Woody.
Liz went about her housewifely duties putting away groceries like nothing unusual had happened. “Your daddy will be home any minute now so we’ll be dining ‘a la dîner tardif.’ She said it like the kind of diner you eat in on the side of the road, but with what she probably thought was a French accent.
Jim Jr. rolled his eyes dramatically at her. It was the universal movement of an annoyed teenager, but in Jim Jr.’s case, something deeply wrong was afoot. It was a warning sign of things to come. Bad things.
Liz didn’t seem to notice Jim Jr. had left the room. She calmly walked across the kitchen to the set of green cabinet doors to the right of the back window. I could see the dark red stripes on the awning as she opened the door and pulled out a bottle of medicine. She shook it, removed the cap and dropped two pills onto her open palm. She stopped as if making a mental choice and poured two more into her hand before replacing the bottle. “Let me offer you some juice, Jody. You must think I’m some awful hostess.”
She opened the big refrigerator door and pulled out a bottle of Delaware punch and a bottle of wine. After she poured herself a nice full crystal goblet full, she took a long swallow to down the pills. “Now, Jody, about Easter…”
But, before she had a chance to start, the back door flew open with a bang and Big Jim stomped his Wellingtons into the kitchen. Crusted mud flew off all over the spotless flooring as he strode over to the table. I couldn’t help but notice one of his pant legs was tucked inside the boot, a sign back home noting the birth of a new calf. I wondered what it meant here.
He slammed several brown paper bags with big grease spots down on the table almost tipping over Liz’s wine glass. “I brought home nigger bar-b-que.”
Liz’s eyebrows arched as they did when the word was used, but this time she went ahead and let it go. “Oh, dear. I was going to broil some ribeye.”
“Naw. Nothing better than nigger bar-b-que.” Big Jim laid his big hot paw on my shoulder. “Man can eat his fill, right, Jody.”
“Yessir,” I answered. “I guess so.” I tried to stand up but the force of his hand kept me seated. He pressed down hard to keep me from moving.
“Mama, get me a drink,” he was speaking to Liz, but his eyes stayed fixated square on me.
Liz hopped up like a spry bunny and began fidgeting with the dumbwaiter which seemed to also serve as a portable cocktail bar. They had an ice bucket like in the movies with a pair of silver tongs she used to fill up a large tumbler. Big Jim took his drink and poured a big gulp of it down his throat while standing behind my chair, his hand still on my shoulder. I could hear the liquid flowing down his gullet. His body made loud noises as he ingested the liquor greedily. It smelled like the way when somebody sweats a lot and it takes over all the air in the room. His body musk and the smell of whiskey filled my nostrils and I fought down the urge to vomit. “Mmmm. Needed that.” He set down the glass in front of me. It was barely half-full and already leaving a ring of moisture on the table. “How ‘bout you have a little taste, Jody.”
“Oh, now, she’s a child. And that’s a man drink.” Liz sounded shocked, but also timid.
Big Jim cut her off. “She’s a big girl, now. Near a woman. Come on, Jody. Have you a little taste.” He prodded me on the back of my neck.
I recognized the smell of Canadian Club whiskey. I’d almost forgotten that time last year when Grace hadn’t picked me up at school. I’d walked all the way home for miles. It took me two hours and by the time I got to the house, I was plenty mad. I went straight to the kitchen where I knew she had that pint of Canadian Club. I threw a swig of it back and swallowed hard like I’d seen them do on tv. I’d never been so sick in my life as I was at that moment. That venom was putrid and I knew its odor. It was like the stuff you put in a power mower to make it run.
I could feel his stomach pressing on my back. It felt really uncomfortable and I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t get up out of the chair. He had me wedged tight between himself and the table. “Come on, now, gal.” He picked up the glass again and put it inside my fingers. “There you go. Down the hatch,” like he was administering medicine. I lifted the glass to my lips and it burned as it went down.
“Oh, dear…” Liz looked worried. “Grace is going to have my head on a plate!”
Big Jim cut her off. “That’s not gonna happen. This gal needs to grow up and her momma ain’t doing her job right.” He sounded angry. I knew one thing. I sure didn’t want to see Big Jim when he got mad and could tell Liz didn’t either. I choked and began to cough. “Hey, none a that. Best remedy for that’s another big swaller’.” I tried to put the glass down, but Big Jim wasn’t having any of it. He pushed it back to my face and grabbed the back of my head with his other hand. “There, now. Easy does it. Let it slide down easy. Yeah, that’s right.” When he said the word ‘easy,’ he began to rub my back in hard circles where Liz couldn’t see. “There you go. That’s a good girl,” he coaxed. I heard him make a groan noise. “Mmmm, mmmm.” He let it out like Andy Griffith used to in the Ritz Cracker commercial, but Big Jim didn’t mean his like that. He meant it a completely other way, a bad way only adults know about. It made me good and nervous.
“Arrite ’den. I got to git cleaned up.” He headed off up the stairs as quick as he’d busted through the back door before. Later when I was home, it dawned on me what kind of cleaning up he was referring to. That house scared me now more than ever and I was terrified of Big Jim.
There was a horror I’d read about in a James Dickey poem, The Sheep Child. It was something you didn’t talk about, a wrongness that went beyond things that people went to hell over when they died. Big Jim and Jim Jr. were the wrongness in that poem. I’d memorized the first of it so I would never forget it. It started out about farm boys being wild to couple. The poem was a grisly thing. It was about a baby half-sheep and half-human dead in formaldehyde in the back room of a Southern museum. He was the offspring of these old back country types and bestiality with his mother. It was about him not having a chance to live his life and dying a painful life there in the dirt, his poor mama sore from rape and giving birth. The old farm boys go on to get married and raise their own families. Like Big Jim. Like Jim Jr. For me, that poem had real faces.