On the days just before and right after the funerals, friends and church people had brought food over, and we all just ate when the mood struck us, whenever that might be, and no one thought about how many plates were at the table. But when the chicken thighs and squash casseroles and custard pies were gone and Poppa called us all back to the kitchen table, there were empty white plates with clean glasses and silverware set on each side of Momma, for Ervin and Garrett. Poppa set the table for a few days, then Opal took a few turns, and then she told me I should take a turn. Nobody said anything about it, but I knew that there needed to be two extra plates.
Wyatt was the youngest, though, and he didn’t know any better. He set the table one afternoon about a week after the funerals, and didn’t put down the plates for Ervin and Garrett. Momma turned around from the stove, glanced at the table, put her apron beside the sink, and then walked through the living room and on to her bedroom. Poppa got up from the table and set two more plates. Wyatt, Opal and me sat there and waited while Poppa went to get Momma back. Wyatt picked up his fork and started to reach for a ham slice, but I kicked him under the table. “Don’t be a dumbass,” I told him. He sat his fork down and kicked me back. “You’re a dumbass,” he said back to me. Opal told us both to shut up, and we did. When Momma came back to the table, she sat between the plates Poppa had set and asked who would say the blessing. Wyatt did, and Poppa told him he did a fine job with it.
Wyatt set the table with seven plates the next day, and the next, and then Poppa asked Momma to help him set the table. We thought it was a good thing when she started setting the table by herself again, all of us taking turns again, even with the two empty places. It was good when she started talking at the table, too, even if the things she said didn’t always go together. It seemed like she was finally coming home from the funerals.
A hundred or so dinners after the funerals, Momma made a blackberry cobbler, Garrett’s favorite, but mine, too. She scooped each of us out a warm bowlful of soft blackberries, purple juice and buttery crust, and, once it was up close, I could see that she’d served me a couple of juice-drenched yellowjackets in with it. With my spoon, I pushed a purple wasp to one side of my bowl. I looked at Opal and Wyatt and saw that they were digging out bee parts, too. Poppa had already bitten into his cobbler, but I saw a little purple pile on his napkin. Wyatt made a face and wiped his hands on his pants, but he didn’t stop eating. Opal cleared her throat. I drank a lot of water. None of us had the meanness to say anything about the yellowjackets.
“I had a time getting the berries,” Momma said. “The patch down t’gully was about grown over. Bees all over it.” Momma looked out the window as she ate, and once or twice, she brought her napkin up to her mouth and silently spit. She’d set the napkin back down, never looking at it or her bowl. “Opal, did you hear Lester Patterson ran his truck in the ditch yesterday?” Momma wasn’t looking at Opal, she was still looking out the window, but all there was was plowed empty fields there. Garrett would walk across those two acres of rough red clay barefooted if Momma had promised him a cobbler. Garrett was always the one that had picked the blackberries.
“I’d heard,” Opal said back to her. “Whereabouts was it?” She shook a jellied lump off of her spoon. She looked up to see if Momma had seen her do that, but Momma still hadn’t looked away from the window. When Ervin was working after school at Harding’s store, when he was still with us, he’d be driving up the packed dirt path beside the empty field about now. Ervin used to bring Wyatt and me Now-and-Laters on Fridays if we hadn’t missed school.
“Over at Sullivan’s place,” Momma said. “Sullivan told me. Said that Lester tore up a mess of his ditch lilies. No real harm done except to Lester’s truck.”
Opal drank a sip of ice water before she said anything. “That fool’s gonna kill himself or somebody, driving that truck around with a gutful of liquor like he does,” Opal said, shaking her spoon like she was scolding somebody. And once she had said it all out loud, she’d said too much and she knew it. We all knew it. Wyatt looked at me, I looked at Opal, she looked at Poppa. Poppa looked back at each of us before he turned to Momma, her eyes closed but still turned towards the window. He took in a mouthful of blackberry cobbler, talked with his mouth full, but we knew what he was saying.
“This is some fine pie, Frances. Can you scoop me out another bowl?” And she did. Oldest to youngest, we offered up our empty bowls for a second helping, and we ate the cobbler until it was gone.
The Cobbler is The Washington Pastime’s 2012 PYA Literary Prize Winner. Brian Smith is an Author Affiliate from Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Chelsea M. Burris was the Student Support Manager responsible for selecting Brian’s story.