The Face On the Carton — Missing Kerry

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“Hey, woman, I asked a question. ‘Are we out’a milk?’ Or what?”

“Hmm?” My lack of coherent response only added fuel to the fire.

“Yer never goan ta know ’til ya open the carton, eejit. Get a move on. I hafta be away ta work here, ya know.”

“Eejit” That was Max’s word for everyone who didn’t catch on fast enough. If he was really ticked, then you were a “great flamin’ eejit.” And the more ticked he grew, the stronger his “Irish” became.

Most people think Max’s accent is charming. But he tends to lay it on a bit thick. He reminds me of a music-hall leprechaun, an Irish wannabe. Not that he isn’t Irish. He’s from Limerick, no less, and proud of it, too.

But Grampa Ross never held with all that “green hats and shillelaghs on the seventeenth” nonsense. He said you come to a new country to have a new life, to leave all the old ways behind.

Mind you, our family’s from Derry, in the north, so we were never much for the “wearin’ o’ the green” anyway. Black Irish of a different type than the dark-haired, blue-eyed Celts. Orangemen, we were called, and “damned prots”, among other things. That’s why we moved across the pond — to get away from the bone-deep tension, blood-ties, the unending, vicious cycle of them-or-us.

Max’s over-the-top accent probably had Grampa Ross spinning in his grave. That and Max being a good Catholic boy. Though, he’s lovely lad when he puts his mind to it. Which he clearly wasn’t today. But then, I’m only his missus, now, and not worth the wooing anymore.

Max grabbed the carton from me and poured milk generously into his bowl. “What in holy hell’s bitin’ you?”

“Nothing,” I said. I busied my hands with the dishrag to hide their shaking, wiping down the counter.

“Jasus, Jean. Can ya not sit and have a bite before cleanin’ evryt’ing in sight?”

Max’s “Irish” was thickening. He was working himself up fit to blow a gasket. Or give me the back of his hand. I sat. Cleared my throat. Glanced away.

“What’s got ya so skittish, then?” Max glared. “I ain’t got all day ta wait on yer whimsy.” He quickly gobbled down the perfectly-sliced peach-half topping his cereal. If his precious flakes turned mushy before he finished, the whole lot’d go in the trash bin. And if he caught me fishing out the bowl, it would get a good smashing, along with me. Lucky, he eats fast, most days.

“The girl on the milk carton reminded me of …someone.” My beautiful Kerry.

Max glanced at the carton. He paused, spoon half-way to his mouth. He picked up the tall, waxed, one-liter box with his other hand and squinted at the dark, unflattering likeness of somebody’s child.

Max’s spoon hit the table, trailing flakes and milk down the fresh cloth. “Well, I’ll be buggered. She looks the spit of that gal ya used to run wit’. The one your Da hated. What was her name?”

“Kerry. And Dad didn’t hate her, Max.”

“Ah, sure, now — Kerry from Derry.” In his mouth, her name sounded obscene. “Wit’ all her hoity-toity airs. Oh, she was too good for the likes of us.”

I pressed my lips together. Best just keep shut and take what was coming. Arguing only made him worse.

But Max was out for blood today, silence or no. “Sweet little, dark-eyed Kerry from Derry. Wit’ the trousers and the boy-hair. Jean’s bosom buddy.” Only Max could make “bosom” sound repulsive.

I squeezed my eyes shut. Tried to let his taunts wash over me. Kerry. Max had torn up my only picture of her. There’s a frozen place in my heart where you used to live.

“Ya stupid, whey-faced cow. D’ya think your Da didn’t know about the pair of ya? Why d’ya think he married ya off so fast, ‘stead of lettin’ ya waste yerself in that fancy art school?”

“She was my friend.” My girl-crush. My soul-sister. We’d laughed together. Got drunk on cheap wine and danced naked in the moonlight. Then, she was gone.

We’d plowed this field before many times, Max and me. I know it hurt him, my refusal to talk about the past. My silence was an itch he couldn’t scratch. But I couldn’t bring myself to give him one more piece of me. And I knew I never would. Let it go, let it go. It’s only words. He’ll get bored and quit soon enough.

Not this time, apparently. “She was a hoo-er.”

This was a new low, even for Max. He thrust his face so close I could smell the half-chewed cereal in his mouth. “A curly haired hoo-er who got her comeuppance.”

My eyes flew open. “What d’you mean, ‘got her comeuppance’?”

Crack. I hadn’t seen Max’s fist coming in time to duck. My chair rocked back. My head struck the edge of the counter. Sparks fizzed through my brain as I sagged to the floor.

“That — that’s what I mean, woman.”

I felt Max standing over me and raised my hands to ward off another blow. He leaned down, gloating, battering me with his words.

“She got what was comin’. Flauntin’ herself. Your little hoo-er found out what it was to have a real man. After that, she couldn’t handle goin’ back to you.”

I lowered my arms and stared into Max’s red-rimmed glare. “You said you never met her.”

Max blinked. He stepped back. Looked away. “We all heard what happened,” he muttered.

He sat down abruptly and began spooning up the last of his mushy cereal. Chewing, swallowing, stuffing it down as fast as he could.

I pulled myself erect and began slicing bread for his lunch. Trying not to think the awful thoughts tumbling through my head. Kerry, my sweet girl, is that why you jumped? But that made no sense. Kerry wouldn’t have ended her life over that. Over Max? Never. She’d have come to me.

And then the worst thought of all leapt out of the muddle… What if she hadn’t jumped?

My world stopped. Oh, Max, what have you done?

No. Concentrate. Spread the butter evenly. Not too thick. Meat, cheese, pickle. Wrap the waxed paper neatly. Tidy creases. Fold the corners just so.

My hands moved mechanically. Neither of us spoke.

I risked a quick glance. Max refused to meet my eyes. His forehead was furrowed; his mouth was pinched, dragged down at the corners. I realized with a start he was afraid… afraid of what? Me?

As he shoved his chair back and stood, Max’s heel skidded in the little puddle of milk beside his chair.

I swear I only reached out to help, more from habit than thought. But when my hand caught the collar of his sturdy, blue work shirt, I gave a sharp yank.

Max’s head twisted to one side. He went down with a crash. As I stood frozen, his breath wheezed out in a kind of whispery sigh. After that, he never moved. His eyes glazed over.

I took a deep breath. Set my chair upright. I sat and stared at my hands as they carefully smoothed the fabric of my apron over my thighs. And, eventually, I stopped shaking. The tears would come later.

I dialed the phone and waited patiently.

The police operator came on the line. “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

And I heard Kerry’s soft voice in my mind, clear as the last time we spoke, all those years ago. I’d dropped the cream jug while fixing our tea. She’d helped me pick up the shattered bits of china and gave me a hug. Then she’d laughed. “No use crying over spilled milk.”