Hurricane Ivan was trying to suck the Gulf Coast off the map. Our family was holed up in a little house in the woods. The power was out. It was night. My mother-in-law, Mary, and I were drinking coffee in the dark kitchen, listening to destruction happen outside.
“Do you hear that noise?” I said. “It sounds like a freight train.”
Mary took a sip of coffee. “Probably just tornadoes.”
“Yep. That’s what everyone on the Weather Channel always says after a tornado, they say it sounds like a train.”
Now I was freaking out. “You really think a tornado is out there?”
Mary shook her head. “No. I said tornadoes. With an S.”
The rain was horsewhipping the house. You could hear windows groan beneath the weird air pressure. The roadways were flooded.
I checked my hands. I was trembling like Barney Fife at a bank stickup.
“Are you scared?” she asked.
She smiled. “Don’t be.”
“What about you? Aren’t you worried?”
“Me?” She shrugged, then raised her coffee mug in full salute. “My cup runneth over.”
The house shook with thunder. Pictures fell from walls. The lightning flashes outside were now set to “disco strobe” mode.
“Try to calm down,” said my mother-in-law, the woman who had, perhaps, the most soothing Alabamian voice I ever heard. She began to tell a story:
“When I was a girl,” she said, “I once had this little duck. Daddy gave her to me. He let me keep her outside in the shed with his minnow tanks. I named her Gertrude.
“Oh, I loved her. She was such a cute thing, so sweet. White feathers, yellow bill. She’d waddle around and eat bugs, sometimes she ate frogs, she made me so happy.”
Lightning. A heavy crash outside. My heart was pounding in my neck.
“Anyway, I’d sell Gertrude’s eggs. Duck eggs went for a lotta money ‘cause they’re so rich and good for baking. Everyone paid top dollar for them, I made big bucks.”
“How old were you?”
“Hmmm. Let’s see. The War had just ended, so I guess I was five.”
She cradled her mug and stared deep into it.
“I loved to watch Gertrude fly. She’d get a running start and, whoosh! Up and away. Daddy would say, ‘One day that duck’s gonna fly off and leave you,’ but she never did. She always came back.”
The ceiling creaked. It sounded like our roof was being peeled open like the lid to a Pringles can.
“Well, one day I was coming home from school and I saw Mother sitting on the steps, wringing her hands, and I could tell she had some bad news.”
“Uh-oh,” I said.
Mary nodded. “Mother said earlier that day there were some men at the hardware store, two hunters, they’d just finished bird hunting, and had their hunting gear still in their trucks.”
“When those men walked outta the store, they saw Gertrude flying over the hardware store, they rushed to their trucks, got their guns, and shot her.”
I interjected. “I’m sorry. But is this supposed to be making me feel better?”
“Oh, I cried. It was awful. And would you believe those hunters even got their pictures made in the newspaper, and…”
“Because, frankly, I’m not feeling very uplifted.”
“…They made the front page, like they were heroes. They held my poor duck by its feet, and the headline was something like: ‘Hunters Snag Duck in Downtown Brewton.’ Broke my little heart. All I did was cry.”
“I hope you never tell this story to children.”
“Anyway, that night, we had some company over for dinner, Miss Henrietta’s twins—they were my good friends. And for supper Daddy brought out a big steaming silver platter and put it on the table…”
“Alright, I think we’re done here.”
“…And after the twins started eating, I said, ‘Omigosh! We’re eating Gertrude!’ And the twins started gagging and ralphing everywhere.”
I buried my face in my hands.
“But hey,” she said, “do you want to know something?”
“Not really. No.”
“Gertrude tasted delicious. I went back for seconds.”
I stared incredulously at my mother-in-law who was smiling. And while I appreciated this woman’s effort to make me feel better, she had in fact told one of the most disturbing old-lady stories I’d ever heard, with no discernible takeaway moral.
I couldn’t help it, I started laughing. Which made her start laughing. Which made us both laugh so hard that we couldn’t catch our breath, and I somehow forgot all about being afraid.
Today, a lifetime later, I crept into Mary’s bedroom to find her sleeping. Her hospice nurse was making notes on a clipboard. I stood at Mary’s bedside and retold the entire story. When I finished, her weary eyes eased open. She looked at me. She lightly held my hand, and she smiled before falling back into a deep sleep.
Well. Now my cup runneth over, too.