Excerpt from Tillie’s Table, a novel in progress
By Diana Meade
Lemmy Cummings tied his ankles to his bunk and then covered the evidence of his secret with a quilt he stole from the closet of his mother’s house on the day she died.
The quilt was a prize winner. It had traveled more miles than his mother ever did, touring the country with its prize winning companions, hanging on civic center walls, boasting its best of show ribbons. It had been carefully handled by docents wearing white gloves who, if asked, would gently turn up a corner so a person could see the intricate work left behind by his mother and her needle.
On the front of the quilt was a steadfast row of pieced houses connected by a red winding swath that entered through the door of one house and exited through the window of another. On the placard that traveled along as explanation, his mother had concocted a story of how the red represented the ebb and flow of love between family members even if they lived in different houses and lived different lives. The first time Lemmy read the artist statement, he almost cried, if only for the beauty of the big lie.
He wondered if what she had really meant to say was that the red undulating swath represented the blood shed of his family members’ broken hearts. Lemmy was sure his version was closer to the truth and since he would never have another chance to ask his mother, he could think what he pleased.
Like carrion fighting over the spoils after a battle, each one of his sisters had come to him after the funeral to complain that one of the other sisters had some how managed to get her claws on Mama’s House quilt when Mama had expressly told her that she should be the one to have it. Lemmy doubted that his mother had told any of his sisters that they were to inherit the quilt since she hadn’t planned on dying suddenly of a brain aneurysm, but his sisters were masters at quoting the dead. Jealous, petulant, bickering children were what they were.
The disappearance of the quilt had become a family mystery matched only by the mystery of what their mother had done with the money if she had sold it. The sisters speculated on how much she got. She had been offered seven thousand dollars once and that was before it started winning prizes.
Lemmy had no intention of ever letting on to his greedy sisters that it now belonged to him. Even if they found out it didn’t matter. He had the quilt in his possession and wasn’t possession nine-tenths of the law? Besides, he could quote the dead as good as his catty siblings.
Mama’s House Quilt now lived on the Marie Quinn. When he was off duty it was carefully folded inside a pillowcase in his locker, safely awaiting his return so it could help to keep him company and keep his secret safe.
Lemmy bunked alone under a stairwell. It was one of the most private spots on the boat aside from the captains’ quarters and cooks’ cabin. This little pint-sized excuse for a room was the reason he had been able to hide his problem for so long.
He was now certain it had started up again when Tillie, the new ship’s cook had said almost in passing that morning that someone had made a big mess with a bottle of mustard and a loaf of bread and if they didn’t clean up the next time they got a hankering for a midnight snack, she was going to put mustard on everything she cooked, including her now famous peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. The whole crew turned in unison to look at him. It was well known that he was a mustard man. Old Sudie had even kept extra in the pantry just for him.
The fact was he didn’t remember getting up during the night to squirt Mrs. Baird’s with the mustard bottle. Since every body was staring at him, he had mumbled an apology to Tillie and found an excuse to leave the galley. He had come downstairs to his room a bit shaken, and then he saw it, and he knew he was screwed. There at the top of Mama’s House Quilt was a three inch long mustard yellow stain, plain as the daylight that shone through the little porthole into his room. His knees went weak and he had wanted to hide out in his bunk, but he was on day shift. Worrying about it would only contribute to his anxiety and anxiety was the fuel that fired the problem.
Sleepwalking on a boat is a recipe for disaster. While he worked he imagined himself strolling around topside while asleep, mustard smeared all over his hands and t-shirt leaving mustard clues at the scene of the crime. If anyone had spotted him, it would be instant dismissal. Lemmy could ill afford to lose his job and the company could ill afford such a liability, in spite of the fact that some members of the crew weren’t that alert or sharp even when they were fully awake.
If Lemmy had someone he could trust at home, she could have warned him before he risked sleepwalking with the fishes, but his wife had packed up his daughter years ago and run off with another man she fell for while he was on the boat trying to make them a living.
He had never gotten over being upstaged by a used car salesman. If his wife had run off with a surgeon or maybe even a chiropractor, he wouldn’t have minded so much, but a used car salesman? He only thought of car salesmen now because he was going to have to sell his car on his next trip home. He needed the money and his pet, the love of his life, his pristine 1966 candy apple red Ford Mustang was going to have to go.
Selling the car made him sad, made him anxious, made him want to punch something, but he had no choice. He didn’t have a big bank account. He had poured his money into his honey. And now he needed cash.
He knew better to get worked up all over again. Worry and anxiety was the reason for his form of sleep walking. He could count on one hand the times since he’d been a teenager that sleepwalking had become a problem, but every time it had been on the boat he had managed to get it under control. This time should be no different.
After supper, he had begged off from the never-ending card game and he had been ruminating here in his room under the stairs. He spent some time with some soap and water gently removing the stain from mama’s quilt.
Rest. He needed rest. He needed to sleep. And he needed to stop thinking.
He tied the last of the strips across his waist to the rail underneath the thin pad that could technically be referred to as a mattress. He reached for the beautiful quilt at his feet and pulled it to his chest, smoothing out the wrinkles with calloused hands; hands that touched the fabric that his mother’s hands had worked and turned into a masterpiece.