The cast of characters: a shabby old woman with a shabby old cat in a shabby old house; her niece; her grandnephew (illegitimate, undistinguished, and miserable); a rock band (jewish, but not kosher).
The shabby old woman was, unlike other shabby old women, never great or important. She spends her days carving small figures from driftwood: white chess pieces. She collects driftwood from the nearby river, pale as worm-cleaned bone, so she carves no black pieces. Her niece, Latoya, just ended an unhappy five year marriage based on lust not love. Her son, Herbert - known as Aytch to the few who are aware he exists - dark-eyed pale-haired silence, never thought much of his now-former step-father.
The rock band enters the story later - for now, just know that it all hinges on a single guitar string; it being the relationships of the shabby old woman, her niece, and her grandnephew.
On a cool winter evening somewhere in the middle of America, silence fogs the air, the floor, the ripple filled glass of the windowpanes, even the hidden supports of the shabby old house. A soft scrape adds tension to the quiet rather than breaks it; scrape as metal pares away at snow white bone pale wood - scrape as shabby old hands drag new sharp silver shimmer blade across, across, across.
Aytch sits in self imposed exile as far from the soft harsh woodwork of his soft harsh grandaunt as possible while still remaining in the house - in a far corner of the attic where every sound in the building catches and grows into grating cacophony. He pouts, full of the importance of his own misery. He tells himself - silently, so as not to break the general gloom - that the distant near noise is better than true silence. He does not believe it.
A spider crawls onto the sprawled limp lonely cold arm of Aytch. He hopes it bites him. He hopes it is venomous. He hopes he dies.
The small brown spider loses its eight legged footing and slides to the floor. Brown eyes brown hands brown hair watch, then with outstretched thumb crush the spider. With bored disinterest, Aytch wipes the spider guts from his thumb onto his jeans. Scrape, his grandaunt carves; scrape metal against wood which once drifted dead and free in the muddy farm-poisoned waters of the Mary de Zene. Aytch moves, wraps his zippered dark green jacket closer about him, leans his back against a rough unfinished wooden wall, tucks his bare feet nearer his body. Scrape, he closes his eyes; scrape, he sleeps; scrape, his dreams are filled with sad white bones clawing desperately at shabby ripple-full windowpanes as they try to return to a bloody river cemetery.
Two stories below, Latoya watches her aunt carve. "I shouldn'ta brung 'im," she says.
"You shouldn't speak in this house," the shabby old woman replies.
"I speak where I want," Latoya says.
Silence. Scrape of sharp blade across wood. "You stay in this house then you don't speak."
"But-" Latoya begins. An emphatic scrape destroys her resolve. "Yes'm," she says politely.
Seconds pass, becoming minutes with slow dull pain. Scrape. The small piece of driftwood the old woman craves begins to look like a rook. Scrape. Latoya fidgets. Scrape, scrape, scrapescrapescrapescr- "Should I make somewhat to eat, ma'am?"
"Girl, what I tell you?"
"I don't have nothing to do."
"Stop your pouting and find something to do. I won't stand for chattering in this house. Talk is dangerous, chatter is useless."
"Yes'm." Latoya stands from the overstuffed chair she had occupied and walks to the kitchen. She opens a drawer, a cabinet, a tin. A pan clatters to the floor. The house holds its breath. The scraping continues, the tension remains unbroken, the pan ignored.
Latoya leans over, picks up the heavy wrought-iron pan, feels her calves protest the unaccustomed stretching. With deliberate slowness, she places the pan back onto the high shelf from which it tumbled. On the stairs, one of the steps creaks over the regular scrape of carving and careful slip of pan across wooden shelf. Latoya twirls, her heart beating rapidly.
Old, long vanished ghosts are reanimated by the quiet sound. In her mind, Latoya sees young fresh-faced eager nervous youth waiting at the door as red high heels clatter down the creaky steps, skirts swirling about elegant brown legs - her legs, long ago, when last she lived in the shabby old house.
"Mama?" Aytch half whispers over the scrape, scrape, scrape. Tattered ghosts from the past flee Latoya's mind and once more she is anchored in the present.
"Here I am, baby," Latoya answers in the same half whisper.
"Mama, don't call me that."
"You'll always be my baby, so git used to it," Latoya says with a soft smile as her son enters the kitchen.
"Girl!" the old woman calls from the front room, scattering the seeds of trust and companionship that had been settling in the kitchen. There is no more scraping filling the old house. The silence suffocates.
Latoya hunches her shoulders. With glaring eyes, she indicates that Aytch should stay in the kitchen. Slowly, Latoya forces herself to enter the small front room in which her aunt carves, almost bare, with smoke-yellowed walls and moth-eaten curtains. "Yes'm?" Latoya murmurs.
"I told you not to chatter, girl."
"That means no chattering."
Latoya's murmur of assent is inaudible even to herself. Still, motionless, frozen, then the scrape begins once more. Latoya turns to go back to the kitchen. Still carving, the old woman says, "If you make somewhat to eat, be sure there's something for Herbie."
"My cat," the old woman corrects.
Scrape. Latoya's lips tighten, purse, threaten to pout as she sways angrily back to the kitchen like a bristling, outraged cat. Aytch sits sullenly, waiting for something, for his mother, for a meal he does not expect to enjoy with people he does not expect to like him. "Feed the cat," Latoya whispers fiercely.
"It's the old woman's pet. Why don't she feed it?"
"Herbert!" Sullen polite response. "Do as you're told, child." Silent obedience, hatred, empty meandering eternal anger.
Scrape. The sun sinks behind trees, fields, roofs. The world cools, waits patiently for the sun. Latoya carries a plate of warm, bland food to the shabby old woman. "Girl, this is a civilized house. Have your boy set the table, we eat in there."
Impatient clumsy young brown hands set the table. Between the gentle clatter of the table being set and the continuous scrape of carving, an almost homelike atmosphere exists. For a few moments, the aching tension in the shabby old house eases. Latoya corrects the placement of a napkin, a fork, a knife; she pours beer into two chilled glasses.
"Go and get your grandaunt," Latoya murmurs. The house sounds lonely now that the dishes are still. The blade still moves across driftwood.
"Ma'am?" Aytch whispers, standing just outside the door between the front room and the central hallway.
The scrape, scrape, scrape stops. The old woman sets aside an almost complete rook. She rises from her shabby worn chair, thin small stateliness, and slowly makes her way into the dining room. Cobwebs catch the dim light in corners and hidden places of the room. The floorboards creak, protesting the shifting weight of the inhabitants. In the dirty glow of lightbulbs scantily clad in thin paper lampshades the three generations eat, nervous, angry, grim.
Outside, the last glow of twilight fades. The sky is cloudy and neither stars nor moon pierce the dark. The meal over, the beer sipped, the old woman stands and returns to her seat in the front room. Aytch clears the table to the renewed sound of carving.
"Shut the curtains, baby," Latoya murmurs to Aytch as she washes dishes. Aytch pulls on them, drawing them together. Half open, half shut, the curtains catch and refuse to budge.
"Ma'am," Aytch says, gesturing helplessly at the uncooperative windows.
"Leave it. The world won't come crawling in through the windows tonight."