Queen Sheba Steps Down

Photo by Robert Frank
Photo by Robert Frank

The place felt like an oven already so Hugh put the tea kettle on one of the three working burners and adjusted the flame. He was making iced tea without being prompted for once. Sheba was still in bed, the sheet pulled up to her eyebrows. It wasn’t likely she’d rouse before noon.

He looked out the window to check on their daughter. Delilah was swinging from the maple, her tanned bare legs stretched toward the next lowest branch so she could push her toes against it. Sheba thought the swing should come down since a neighbor boy fell and lost consciousness a second. But no one blamed anybody but the boy. He’d been stupid enough to stand up and try to jump off at the highest point. Trying to impress Delilah, Hugh guessed. Lucky he didn’t break anything.

“There’s a clue of what’s to come,” he’d said, “when Del grows up. There’ll be bodies at her feet.”

Sheba had pulled back her still-luxurious brunette hair, piled it on her head and stuck a pencil in the topknot.

“Yeah, been there, had that situation.”

“Don’t I know it. Still true, honey.”

Hugh found the second-best glass pitcher, its red and yellow painted flowers half-erased by years of handling. Sheba would complain when she saw it, not vocally but an eyebrow raised high and lips pressed hard in distaste. She preferred the clear glass and gold-rimmed pitcher with matching glasses. They each had gold running along the edges, worn but visible.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “They were fully golden once and they still look pretty filled with iced tea, lemonade or Boone’s Farm.”

The tea kettle started to shriek and he grabbed it fast so as not to wake Sheba. There weren’t enough regular teabags so he rummaged and found a couple stray mint bags back of the cupboard. He sure hoped she’d be happy with it, not soured by it not being just right.

The front door opened then banged shut. He shushed her.

“Daddy,” she whispered, “can I go to Thea’s for a blue popsicle? She’s waiting outside and it’s dripping down her neck.”

Hugh handed Delilah a kitchen towel and shooed her out. “Come back soon.”

“I want to play with her Barbies. She got a new one that can ride a bike!”

“Come back and we’ll see how mom is when she gets up.”

Delilah came up to him and put her arms around his waist to give him a squeeze. He had one hand on the pitcher and the other on the kettle but he let go of the kettle and patted her back.

“Go on but bring back the towel after Thea wipes her neck.”

Del ran out and the door slammed again. He’d have to fix that today. He heard the girls giggle, then Del tossed the towel inside.

“What’s going on? Not yet ten and I’m yanked out of dreams by the sounds of a scream and a bang. Can’t even get enough rest around here. I’ll have to check into Dawn’s Motel just to get fifty winks’.”

Hugh glanced at her and got back to work. Sheba pulled her filmy pink robe about her and shuffled to the round table by the window. She pulled the plastic shade down. Massaged her head as she lowered into a chair.

The steaming water in the pitcher made the tea bags pop up and float. Hugh stirred them with his index finger, then put the pitcher in the refrigerator.

“You’ll thaw everything in the freezer doing that. Steam’ll rise right up and get through cracks, make the frozen chicken legs soft.”

“Bad headache again?”

“When do I not have a headache? It’s my bunched discs, that’s all. Ever since that night….”

A couple flies had sneaked in so he hung another sticky fly-strip above the table after he took the old one down, examined the tiny bodies it had collected since yesterday morning–eight–then threw it away. She watched him as he poured a cup of coffee, then carried it to her. He waited to see if she was going to ask for iced tea, but when she didn’t he took a big breath, let it out and opened the door.

“Close the door tight or we’ll have a gang of flies. We’ll have to move out just to give them enough room.”

He almost laughed, relieved she could still joke, then closed the door behind him, gently so it didn’t jar her.

She thought he said something but it got lost in the hot, dry wind. A heaping spoonful of sugar melted into her coffee. One more night and then to the hospital for tests. MRI, blood tests, things she couldn’t even pronounce. It might be something scary or it might be just her neck whacked out-of-place, which was bad enough.

Still, she was being tough on Hugh. The pain had eroded her will and patience. It wasn’t his fault she’d been mugged. Took her license, one good credit card and forty-eight bucks. He hadn’t even been at the bar with her. Rarely was. He was a steady man, a caring father, worked hard as any man could. But for too long a time now she couldn’t get enough distraction out there. Not so much cheap drinks, but all the activity–pool, darts, music and dancing, the passing flirtations. The attention. Years had flown by. Here she was, brushing shoulders with forty. Paying the price for self-neglect. Neglect of him. She should have left long ago, spared them her impulsiveness. The misery that came of it. But he still wanted her there. She needed him. The wanting had settled a bit awhile ago.

Sheba looked around. They all kept it clean, tried to fix things as they broke. There were touches of better days. The sofa sleeper, brass lamps and a fancy glass vase filled with paper roses. She was proud of her embroidered pictures on the walls, had won a blue ribbon at the country fair for her second-ever quilt. This hadn’t been the plan, any of it. Not the trailer, not the jobs at Hargood’s Lumber that were promising but amounted to less than she deserved. Not the bars. She’d thought she’d do more, be better. Hugh was twelve years older and showing it finally. He still had the sweetest smile, a kindness she craved. He had a touch with the kids. And her. He was one in a million just born good.

“Hi Mom,” Delilah said as she ran in, pulled out a cupboard drawer, then stepped on it so she could get a clean glass from the dish drainer. She filled it with water.

“Is your head better? I got a blue popsickle. Thea said they have a big box in their freezer so any time I want one to come over.” She smiled, took a big gulp and sat at the table.

“My head is fussing at me, but not as mean as yesterday. What have you been doing, Del? Come, let me fix that ole crown.”

Sheba bent over her, the robe falling open so frayed silky tank top and shorts showed. Her skin was pale and tight against her bony legs and chest. She smelled like Jergen’s mixed with sweat, just like she should. The crown was crooked, held in place with bobby pins that Delilah had tried to get in right. When it was straightened, Sheba smoothed back her daughter’s flyaway hair and gave her a fat kiss on her forehead.

“You’re my heart, Delilah Corrine. Ever since your sister left for the city you are all I’ve got and boy, am I lucky.”

Delilah pulled back and squinted at her mother, the same one who’d yelled at her last night to sit still and not make a squeak until bedtime. They’d been watching a talent show. Her mother wasn’t so easy to be around sometimes, that was for sure.

Sheba held her by the shoulders. Looked her up and down. “I know I forget to tell you that, but it’s still true. You have my old crown because you absolutely deserve it.”

Delilah sat down again, hands atop the sparkly curves. “I forget I have it on. I didn’t let Thea try it out. I’m careful. One day I’m going to get my own, anyway, you’ll see.”

“Get your own what? Popsickle truck? A house without bugs?” 

Hugh caught the door before it banged shut and sat at the third chair.

“Naw, my own Summer Festival crown. When I’m sixteen. Like mom did.”

“Well, that’ll be a day to celebrate,” he said. “I won’t hold you to it but I’ll look forward to it if it happens.”

Sheba looked at Hugh funny and he returned her gaze. Her wide-spaced blue eyes were red-rimmed, bleary. The imprint on her cheeks left by the sleep mask looked like deep wrinkles but the fact was she just had a few lines on her forehead that deepened when she was mad and laugh lines that he loved to kiss when she’d let him. Her hair…ah, he loved her hair even when it was a tangle, even when she couldn’t fix it, how it cascaded aorund her shoudlers and flew away from her face when she was working around the place. At work she looked great, confident, head high like a lovely queen, the way she did when he first set eyes on her. But mostly he loved that she knew him–his stubborn streak and forgetful ways, a penchant for quiet and addiction to old kung fu movies–and took him as he was. He tried to do the same.

Delilah saw the signs–soon he was going to say silly things, forget she was there–so she slipped away after she found her Nancy Drew book.

“I want to say how sorry I am for disappointing you, Hugh.” He shook his head. “No, really. All this headache mess has me taking stock. A little late. I’ve got to tell you I’m done with foolishness. Thinking I’m high and mighty. Just because I was good-looking once and was told I’d go far I got this attitude, like I’m owed something. I don’t know why you put up with me. I’m not the woman I wanted to be…”

She never cried. She railed against things or got stoney or got busy. She drank a little too much, went dancing. Sheba was not born to be a whiner, not even when Hugh was laid off for two years now, not even when the doctor said there might be something else going on besides a bad knock on the head. Now, a tear escaped.

He watched it roll down her cheek as if it was on its way to somewhere far away but didn’t want to go. He reached out and touched it so it rolled onto his own skin. Sheba let more out and he just waited, surprised.

Delilah peeked around the corner and saw what looked like tears. She crept up to her mother, took off the crown, then placed it just so on her mother’s head.

“I crown you best mom of all the world. Ta da and amen!”

Sheba stopped crying and her shoulders quivered with laughter. She took the crown off and set it on the table. Sunlight barely lit it up, it was so old.

“How about we just be who we are right now? Just leave it at that?” Delilah looked puzzled, unconvinced, but sat in her mother’s scrawny lap.

Hugh slapped his thigh and stood up. “I’ll add an amen to that. And I’ll make lunch. We can eat at the picnic table in back. May as well relax. Tomorrow is another day, a long one for mom.”

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