The Family Business

by Jack Curtin

It was always like this when she was in the kitchen and had guests at her table. Myriad memories ran through her mind, recollections of all she had achieved, dreams of all that she had still to do. She shook her head angrily and tried to dispel her thoughts. Time enough for that later; time now to concentrate on the job at hand. She lowered the heat slightly under a large pot which was boiling over and carefully added, a few fistfuls at a time, the hand-cut pasta she'd worked on all afternoon. Then she stirred the marinara sauce that slowly simmered on the adjoining burner and turned her head slightly to peek into the dining room where her guests were still sitting motionless at the table where she'd left them.

A sudden cold chill caused her to shiver, confirming the arrival of the presence she been expecting into her kitchen. "You're here, aren't you, Jack?" she said, turning back to the sink to stir the pasta as the water began to roil again. This was a necessary part of the evening's ritual, she'd recognized that a long ago. The familiar, even if unwelcome, was also somehow comforting.

"In my day, women didn't do the family work, Annie." he rasped without offering a greeting. "It was unseemly to even consider the possibility. Men were the ones meant to get their hands dirty. Yet look at you, hard at work in the kitchen again…" His voice trailed off. Annie laughed, as she always did when the old man started his recurring rant.

"Things change, you old fool," she said, turning around to where he stood, barely visible in the dark kitchen corner. "Men also used to hunt down their own food with clubs and stones in their day, you know. Now they work in corporate offices to earn the money to buy their meals, often fully prepared, off the shelves. Women once were nothing but baby-making machines or, yes, mere vessels for the pleasures of men, as was the case in your time. Today we are free to work the same as men; today I carry on the duties which I must in order to walk the path you set for all of us who followed."

She picked up the wooden spoon from the sink top and waved it in the direction of her visitor. "The extra burden that I carry above all other women, of course, is that I have the damned ghost of my famous progenitor hovering about, popping up to tell me over and over how he did things a century ago and how wrong and ill-suited I am for the tasks I've inherited." Her tone turned hard. "You should be proud of me, sir, not harassing me."

"Ah, girl, you're surprisingly good at the work, there's no denying that," the spectre admitted, slowly and grudgingly. "It's just that these days it all seems too easy. You can manage in a single night what it took me a lifetime to accomplish. In truth, an old man such as I resents all those nights of having to brave the elements, walking the cold dark streets in order to do what needed to be done."

"Too bad then that you were born too soon." Her words were bitter, but he took no notice.

"And died too soon as well, sad to say. But let us not argue," he answered, nodding his head toward the dining room. "I see that another successful evening is in progress." Annie glanced reflexively toward her guests again, but of course they could neither see nor hear her visitor. "I freely admit that I take great satisfaction in the fact that you've surpassed everything that I and all the generations since ever managed. And I know that I should be grateful that you do the work at all. There's no one else left. No one." He paused, the delivered his final plea, the true reason for his visit. "And, should you continue your foolishness about never lying with a man, it will all end with you."

Annie's face flushed. "Believe me, I will be as heartbroken as are you if that is the case," she said softly, "but there can be no man for me. I am not inclined in that way and that's all there is to it. I've told you this, over and over. Rather than bothering me as you do each time I set out work, you should be trying to find some kindred soul elsewhere to follow in our tracks."

"Would that I could, girl, would that I could. But I cannot. I can communicate only with those who are part of our direct family line, you know that. There is something in our blood which exists in no others who have walked the earth this past 100 years and more. And thus your obstinacy means that the beauty, the misunderstood grandeur, of what we do will end with you. The world will be a poorer place as a result."

"Some would disagree about that," Annie said. She turned back to the stove, turning off both burners, and lifted the boiling pot of pasta quickly over to the sink to run cold water into it. She moved the saucepan to a cold burner, brushed a saucer full of freshly chopped basil into it and stirred it gently. "Now, get out of here, old man, so that I can be about my business."

"We'll talk again," the ghostly figure said and, with a nod of his head, vanished.

Annie picked up a tray and walked into the dining room. Her guests hadn't moved, not that they could have. They sat still in their chairs, the faint stench of the raggedy clothes they'd worn when she'd invited them in off the streets mixing with the fading aromas of the full dishes in front of them. Each had consumed barely a forkful before her life ended. Annie touched one girl on the shoulder and her whole body shifted. Rigor mortis was already beginning to set in.

"Ah," she said aloud, knowing that her ancestor was still listening and would always listen, until she'd taken her final breath. "You made yourself a famous man, Jack, but that's not for me. I have my own ways, with my potions and herbs. I don't need the spotlight. I merely do what our line has always done, and do it quietly."

She began clearing the table, already thinking about how she would cut up the bodies and dispose of them in the unused well in the back yard, just as she had done many a night before. But first she would enjoy her special tradition, a celebratory repast of pasta and fine wine. Old Jack and I have much in common, she thought to herself. We choose to kill those about whom no one really cares and to do it randomly as fate permits. The difference is that I neither need nor want to call attention to myself. Posturing and the like was the province of needy men such as her famed ancestor.

"Jack the Ripper," she snorted aloud. What silly 19th century foolishness all that had been.

Copyright © 2007 Jack Curtin

Return to Opening Page