“Traiteurs” by Ramona DeFelice Long


Miss Aline is going to die, but it will not be today. It won’t be this week, or next. Beyond that, not even I could say for sure.

I look into her sleep-softened face and tuck the blanket around her. I’m careful not to bind her too tightly, or wake her. She will sleep another hour before she needs me. You could set a clock by Miss Aline.

A coffee mug and book sit on the table by the recliner—a thriller like my own husband reads. That means Terry, instead of his wife, sat with his mother last night.

A Mason jar of Louisiana irises is on the table, too, so I crack open the mini-blinds to see if they need tossing. The light shines across the bed, and I tiptoe closer to Miss Aline again. Cheeks pink. Breathing steady. Her left side’s still a little frozen from the stroke, but her mouth is not turned down so much anymore. She’s improving.

I take the Mason jar with me into the hallway, and hear the upstairs shower shut off as I step out the back door. Outside, the sky is patched with clouds, and I skip between the light and the shadows, like I did when I was a kid, and toss the wilted purple flowers over the back fence. Later, I’ll cut a fresh bouquet, or maybe a blossom from the big magnolia that keeps Miss Aline’s room shaded and cool. Sick folks like flowers. I have learned this since I started sitting.

I leave my shoes, dampened from the morning dew, on the back door mat and enter the kitchen barefoot. Terry’s pouring coffee. He’s wearing a T-shirt; his starched work shirt hangs on the back of a chair. He won’t put on the shirt until he’s ready to leave. Two weeks working here and I know his habits. It’s something I’ve learned to do—to notice my employers’ habits and avoid what bothers them. Be a few minutes early and count on staying a few minutes late. Bring my own lunch because they do not always remember I need to eat. Shut off my cell phone and answer the house line on the first or second ring.

I also learned not to skip parts when I read, because you never know how much the sick person hears. I always say good morning, good afternoon, it’s time for your bath, let’s sit you up now. And I put Miss or Mister in front of the sick person’s name, whether it’s a child or a hundred-year-old man, because being called Miss or Mister gives them a last bit of dignity in their final days.

I call Terry by his first name. We are distant relatives. His grandmother was a healer too, a traiteur, like mine, though his folks never embraced the Cajun ways. Terry went to college, became an engineer. I stayed home and learned to care for the elderly and the infirm. Learned that I have my grandmother’s gift of looking into a person’s face and seeing if they will die today. Or, if not today, sometime soon.

“You want coffee?” Terry asks. His face is pale. He looks worse than his mother, and she’s the one who had the stroke.

I shake my head. “She had a good night,” I say. “She’s getting stronger.”

He sips his coffee and stares out the window over the sink.

“Terry,” I persist, “she doesn’t need round-the-clock care. Her right side’s okay. She’s got that bell if she needs you. You don’t have to wear yourself out sitting up with her.”

“I’m fine,” he says.

“You don’t look fine,” I say. “And I don’t feel right taking your money when Melinda’s not working and she could easily—”

“No,” he says, interrupting.  I am taken aback. Terry is never rude.

Something’s wrong here, but I don’t see it at first.

He sighs. Outside, a car door bangs, and then Melinda comes in, her hair still damp from the laps she swims at the Civic Center pool every morning. She’s carrying a donut sack and two go-cups of coffee. She sees me and stops short.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I only got two,” she says, holding up the coffee. Her face is red. I can’t tell if she’s embarrassed, or if it’s the heat.

“It’s okay, I had mine at home,” I say. I ask Terry to scoot over so I can rinse out the flower vase. While I do, they have a quick married talk—what are you doing today, will you be late, what do you want for dinner. I wait until they finish before I turn around.

The sun has slipped between the clouds. A ray hits Melinda full in the face. I drop the Mason jar to the floor and it cracks into pieces at my feet.

“Oh!” Melinda’s cries, and Terry says, “Don’t move!”

Melinda says she’ll get a broom. Terry approaches me, but he’s not looking at the glass, and I’m not either. I’m staring at the anguish on his face. He saw it. Of course he saw it. His grandmother was a traiteur too.

“What’s she got?” I whisper, but he shakes his head like he doesn’t want to say because she might hear. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is—cancer, tumor, heart attack—it’s coming to take her. Soon.

I lay a hand on his arm. “I’ll stay, as long as you all need me.”

Before he can answer, Melinda bursts in. “Are you all right? You didn’t get cut?”

I can’t look at her. Not yet.

“No, Miss Melinda,” I answer, looking away. “I’m not cut a bit.”

Ramona DeFelice Long’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in literary, regional, and juvenile publications. She is self-employed as an author, writing instructor, and private editor. In 2013, she was awarded a literary fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts as an Established Artist in Literature-Creative Nonfiction. She maintains a literary blog at ramonadef.wordpress.com.

Read Ramona DeFelice Long’s comments on Tammy Lynne Stoner’s “Racing Josephine.”

Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
I found this to be an incredibly effective, well-crafted story. Despite the brevity, there’s a great sense of build, and the reader is given just enough detail to be immersed in the action without being overloaded.  Then, just as we’re coming to grips with the world that the author has created, there’s the revelation—the twist that makes the whole thing resonate. The result is an efficient, stunning and powerful story that is perfectly rendered. Just great.
Comments on this story by Alan Bray, author of “The Temporary Assistant Postmaster”

In the story’s first line, the author shows the end: “Miss Aline is going to die, but it will not be today.” But it is not some omniscient entity speaking here, it is the narrator herself, and the fact that she knows this about Miss Aline is the secret of the story.

“Traiteurs” is a great example of a short, short story that communicates with tight focus and strong imagery. A Mason jar is full of fading flowers at the beginning, and at the end, is empty and then broken. The reader is shown faces, illuminated by light in different ways; faces that reveal life and death. And light itself is central. The protagonist skips “between light and the shadows.” Very satisfying.

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