In the Beginning

by Regina Phelps

A noise from the parlor made her jump, and though Jimmy had been dead for a year, it still frightened her when she heard a sound. "Damn you Jimmy Murray, why can't you just leave me in peace," Kathleen said as she slammed the kitchen window shut, cutting off the cool March breeze.

Pushing the parlor door open she looked around, not really expecting to find anyone. Polished old furniture and the scent of fresh flowers filled the room, but nothing else. Her Mama used to tell her, "To get a bad odor out of a house Kathleen, you got to clean every nook and cranny, and put flowers, sweet smelling flowers all around." So she'd spent the first two weeks after Jimmy passed on cleaning, till the odors of tobacco, beer and the cheap cologne he wore were gone.

Kathleen Murray shivered, remembering that night a year ago. A braided rug covered the blood stained floor in the hall where he'd laid face down, a trickle of blood seeping out from behind his ear.

The whistling teakettle cut off the picture in her mind. Her hand shook as she reached for the Beleek teacup that always rested clean in the dish drainer. Kathleen handled the paper-thin cup lovingly and remembered Jimmy saying, "You think you're so special don't you, with that china cup, like you was a lady or something." And she answered him, till the first time he hit her. Kathleen poured the steaming water into the old cup and sat at the oilcloth covered table, remembering again what she'd been trying to forget. When she placed the used tea bag in the matching saucer, more memories of Jimmy came and sat beside her.

"You use those tea bags more than once," he'd say his face bright red and puffy, his voice slurred and angry. "I gotta feed all those brats you brung into my house. Use those tea bags more than once, you hear?" It was a cool March evening when Jimmy Murray died, and though she'd missed the convenience of having a husband, Kathleen didn't miss Jimmy at all.

She looked at the cup again. It was chipped on one side and the gold trim had worn off, but each time she drank from it she'd hear mother say, "You always be your own woman, Kathleen." She never understood what that meant till that night. Good advice, her Beleek teacup, and the old iron she used as a doorstop were all she had left from her Mother. The tea had grown cool and the sugar had settled at the bottom making it thick and sweet, leaving the taste of lemon and sugar on her lips.

In the beginning, Jimmy use to say, "You got the sweetest lips, Kathleen" and with those strong arms wrapped around her, she felt special.

She'd answer, "You didn't kiss the Blarney Stone Jimmy, you ate it," and they'd laugh, and make love. Kathleen tried to remember the kind of man he'd been before he took to drink and gambling. He'd kiss the back of her neck and then unpin her long hair. He'd tell her a man could get lost in that hair, and he'd kiss her with such love that she could never get enough of him. Her green eyes sparkled with tears for that Jimmy Murray.

In the beginning Jimmy was a carpenter with hands of gold and made fine furniture, but one day he told her it was too hard and there was no big money in carpentry. Then he met Mike Malone and didn't do carpentry any more. Kathleen didn't know what Jimmy worked at for a living in the last few years, but she'd seen a bulge under his coat and supposed it was a gun. She asked him about it once and he said not to worry, that he just did jobs once in a while for Malone, collecting money. She wasn't worried.

Father McCarthy, the parish priest, had told her after Mass one Sunday, "Don't throw Jimmy's clothes out Kathleen. There's poor people could use them, especially that fine black wool winter coat Jimmy wore." So she'd spent the second two weeks after Jimmy passed going through his clothes. As she emptied the pockets of that fine wool coat, she saw a small paper bag stuffed in the pocket, kind of hidden in a sewed-over lining. It was filled with bills rolled real tight and wrapped with a rubber band. She'd never seen bills that big. Kathleen found more bags under a loose floorboard in the closet. And even more down the cellar in an old empty wine barrel. She'd known Jimmy loved to bet at the track, but she didn't think he could have won that much. Being a good Catholic, Kathleen gave some of the money to Father McCarthy for the poor, and of course the coat.

Kathleen walked into the bedroom, her shoes echoing on the wood floor, and opened the closet they'd shared. A few dresses and her winter coat hung all alone. Nothing left of Jimmy's but his money, she thought. Kathleen checked behind her, then closed herself in the closet and looked again, as she did three or four times a day, at all the money in her hatbox.

"He was a good man," Father McCarthy had told her, his face red and puffy, his breath stinking of beer. "You were lucky to have such a good man, Kathleen Murray." His voice echoed in the church, as he folded the bills neatly and slid them into the pocket of his cassock. "Did you find any more?"

"That's all there was, Father," she said, not meeting his eyes as she shifted the baby to her other hip and said two Hail Marys to herself for having lied to a priest. He held up the coat, looking it over carefully, picking a loose thread off here and there, and brushing it. Kathleen knew who sat next to Jimmy at the tavern and who sat next to Jimmy at the track, and which poor man would wear his coat.

She stopped at the doctor's office to give Dr. Kemp some of the money. Kathleen told him, her voice shaky, "This is for being a good doctor to me and my kids, and for patching us up once in awhile after one of Jimmy's drunks." Trying to put into words what was hardest to say, she finally stammered, "And for that night."

He wouldn't take the money. "Just doing my job," he said.

On her way home, she passed Malone's Tavern and stood out there for awhile, watching the men coming home from work go in for a beer. She saw Father McCarthy wearing the coat. She heard the men cheer when he told everyone he'd buy rounds.

The second month after Jimmy passed on, Kathleen left all the lights on at night. She used to tell him that too. She'd stand at the top of the stairs and yell down,

"Jimmy, I left the bathroom light on and I ain't gonna turn it off, and Jimmy I left the porch light on all night." The first time she did that, she nearly died of fright, as if that big booming voice would start yelling and his face would get all red.

"Turn the damn lights off woman. What do you think I'm made of, money?" he'd say and she'd squint, waiting for the blow that often came, but she'd never look away and she'd never cry, just tighten her lips. Every night he'd go down to Malone's bar on the corner and she'd sit in the dark trying to read with one light. Most nights he'd come home late and bang doors and curse as he bumped into things, and when he climbed the stairs she'd smell the beer and she'd lie there waiting. Though he'd be too drunk to really do it right, he'd try like hell and sometimes he'd hurt her.

On Sundays in church, Kathleen prayed that he'd go back to the Jimmy Murray she'd married a long time ago, in the beginning. Once in a while kneeling there, she'd hear her mother's voice as clear as if she sat right next to her. "Be your own woman, Kathleen," but she still didn't understand.

Then that night a year ago when Jimmy came home drunk, he tripped over that little wooden car of Kevin's. If only he hadn't been kicked him, she wouldn't have had to stop him. But he just kept hitting and kicking that boy.

Her face throbbed from where he hit her when she grabbed his arm, and when he turned those vicious, drunk eyes from her towards her child one more time, rage took the place of fear, and as his hand swung back again, like the overfilled whistling kettle when the water burst out, she exploded. Then, in the moments after, when quiet filled the small house and Jimmy lay there breathing slower and slower, Kathleen remembered it all, the promised beginning, the happiness when the babies first came. And than she saw those vicious drunk eyes and watched the dark blood pool on the wood floor.

Kathleen ran around the corner to get Dr. Kemp. She stood there watching as he examined Jimmy, tears sliding down her face. Dr. Kemp shook his head sadly and looked her long in them swollen green eyes and said, "Poor Jimmy, he must a been so drunk that he lost his footing, Mrs. Murray, and fell over that table over there and hit his head on the old iron you use for a door stop." Then he turned Jimmy's body over and dragged it into the hallway, where he carefully rested Jimmy's lifeless head on the edge of the old iron that lay on its side. "Jimmy must a been mighty drunk," he told the police officer who came to the house, as he handed him Jimmy's gun. Sergeant McKennon nodded and whistled as he took the gun and looked at it real careful, then rubbed it on his pants to make it shine. "Nice gun Jimmy carried," he said. "I wouldn't want the little ones to get hurt, Mrs. Murray," he said, and put the gun in his pocket.

Dr. Kemp set Kevin's leg in the hospital that night while Kathleen just kept staring at him. "You put ice on your eye when you get home, Kathleen. Its swelling bad." She did, and sat up that whole night shaking and crying and waiting. Each noise outside would make her cry all over again. Kevin slept with her all night.

She spent the late spring months after Jimmy passed on planting a little flower garden in the back yard. He used to say, flowers was just a waste of a woman's time. "Just make my dinner, woman." And he'd sit and eat, never once talking. She remembered in the beginning that he would tell her the next best thing to loving her was eating her cooking, and then sometimes they wouldn't finish dinner, they'd just go to bed.

Once in a while now she'd take some of her flowers to the cemetery and put them on Jimmy's grave. And she'd talk to him for a bit. "Jimmy, I guess someday when I die I might see you again, but I really hope not. If there are separate places there, I don't want to be with you. I don't mean to be disrespectful you know, you being the father of my children, but I hope I don't have to be married to you there, too."

One late March day, Kathleen got up from the table and went to the sink, and as she stood doing dishes and looking out the window, she could hear her children laughing and playing. Kevin still had a limp, but every day he walked a little taller. Tears slid down soundlessly as she thought of that night a year ago. Nope, even though I missed the convenience of having a husband this last year, I can't say I've missed Jimmy much, she thought. She washed the cup lovingly, placing it in the dish-drainer for next time. She wiped her eyes with a corner of her apron and picked up the saucer and stared long at the used tea bag. "Nope," she said "I don't miss you at all Jimmy Murray" and threw the once-used tea bag into the garbage.

Regina Phelps's work has been published in Happy, Fiction Primer, Satire, Animal Trails, Dogwood Tales, and others. She received a grant for one of her stories about an elderly lady. She's had two readings in Manhattan, which made her wish she'd started writing earlier in life.

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