Remnants

 
“The first hint I had was when we would fashion Barbie clothes out of the remnants in my mother’s sewing basket. Did your mother have a sewing basket? Do mothers even sew anymore? My mother had a remanent basket and Daniel and I would go in it, especially on rainy days. We’d hold up pieces of things and ask, ‘Can we use this?’ Can we use that?’ And she would nod or snatch something out of our hands. The stuff she let us use we would make into clothes for our Barbies–my Barbies. Daniel didn’t have Barbies. We would make these clothes and his would always come out looking like clothes. What I made looked like left over material on a Barbie, but Daniel could take a rag and make it look like a dress from Mattel.” Elsalane finally paused and we both breathed. She used the breath to take a sip of coffee.

I used the breath to try to figure out where this was going. I had met Elsalane about a year ago in the same coffee shop we were sitting in. It was one of the places that offer free WiFi and I had been in there to check my emails. The place was crowded on that night and I had chosen her circle of chairs over a noisy circle of bitch and knit mothers. A quick look at her hair and I had decided she was biracial and the darker half of her heritage would not mind a black woman sitting next to her. She was a curly haired, heavy hipped girl who I decided on second appraisal was a red Latina; ginger hair, ruddy skin, large features. A tote on the small table near her had been seeping children’s worksheets but she had been reading a Bible and I thought she was too deeply involved in it to take much notice of me. She had nodded and smiled and that would have been that if I hadn’t felt so guilty over invading her personal space that I asked, “What book are you reading?” It was on then. She closed her Bible on the book of Micah and I never got my laptop open. We had sat and talked for almost two hours, enjoying the conversation so heartily that some of the knitting mothers were looking at us with envy.

She turned out to be some of the things I initially thought she was: young, single, a fellow teacher, a new Christian. Jewish; she had quickly clarified her Hebrew heritage. Her willingness to talk had me daring to ask how her family took her turn to Jesus. That had propelled our talk even further. We had teaching in common, we had what my ex referred to as ‘weight management’ issues in common, and we had relationship issues in common (even if I never used a pronoun when I shared my failed romance stories with her). Over coffee, we got pretty close that first evening. We had ended the time with an exchange of lesson plans, diet tips, prayer requests and email addresses. And a hug.

As I drove away that first evening, I had felt a little guilty about that prayer request thing. I do pray. I do know the Bible. I do believe in God. Yet, I knew if I were ever to take her up on her invitation to visit her church–as progressive as she thought it was– I would be stoned. Still, I figured I would probably never see this woman again.

About a week later she emailed me to tell me that I was still in her prayers. I dug out the requests she had given me and reminded myself to include them in mine.

Good thing I did. We started seeing each other maybe ever two weeks, maybe every three. I would rush in for a cup of coffee and she would be there, usually with her Bible. My rush would become a linger. It was pleasant to have these intimate but vague conversation with someone I barely knew. It felt safe. I guess it was like going to a therapist. She seemed to show up when I most needed to hear something she would say. I guess I was the same God’s mouthpiece for her. Mostly we encouraged each other in matters of the classroom and the heart; where to find plus sizes bargains.

Tonight I went in and she was seated in the far corner reading a book I had read. I had detoured to say hello and then taken my large cafe mocha over. We talked about the book. We talked about school frustrations. We talked about what the rainy weather was doing to our similar hair. We talked about the new man she hoped was in her life. And out of no where she said, “I’m having this thing with my brother.” And then started telling me about Barbies. I had a tingle of alertness, thought I knew where she was going with it all, and wondered how I was going to respond when she started quoting Leviticus. I thought I was prepared for what she was going to reveal about her brother but I wasn’t.

“I always knew that Daniel was…different. Still I just didn’t know what to do when he made his announcement,” she said, setting her paper coffee cup on the table between us.

“A gay brother coming out can–”

“If only,” she interjected and rolled her agate brown eyes heavenward. “Daniel likes women.”

Denial is here with us, I thought. I opened my mouth to apologize for my assumption.

“Though…” She tilted her head to the side as if considering something that had just occurred to her. She chuckled softly, reaching over to hit my knee. “Though in a way I guess you could say that he is gay. Or going to be gay.” She laughed after taking in my puzzlement. She scooted closer and leaned in. “See, Daniel is having a sex change operation. And he’s living with the woman he’s going to marry. So, I guess you could say that my brother is a lesbian.” Her soft chuckle became a bark of near hysterical enlightenment.

A man hitting the keys of his laptop looked at us with annoyance. A couple playing chess at a nearby table, glanced our way.

I sat back just slightly stunned. “Can you do that?” I asked. I was perplexed. Not too much by the mixture but by the legality of it all. It seemed too complex to fit under the idea of marriage even to someone like me who had witnessed some varieties of coupling.

She nodded vigorously as she tried to choke down her mirth. “I…I…I guess you can since Daniel’s doing it.”

“How…” I sat back trying to find a word. “How…extraordinary.” I finally declared.

And we both laughed; she wiping at tears in the corners of her eyes.
The typing man near us made a dramatic scene when he stood and moved some distance away. He had to make two trips; one for his laptop, one for the notebook he was typing from. He huffed as he passed each time. And he glared at us.

Elsalane did not notice him. She fanned at the red in her face and grimaced. “My mother is ready to sit shiva over it. And my father–I told you how unfazed by us my father is–he barely wanted to stay in the same room with Daniel, I mean Diana.”

“Diana and not Barbie?” I said perhaps a little too viscously.

She laughed again. Wiped her eyes again. “Mom would have been happier if he was just gay,” She said softly.

I nodded with understanding. It reminded me of one of the stories I dreaded every time I had to force my third graders to read it. The word ‘cock’ was in the title. It always caused quite a stir of whispers and twitters with the children, especially my worldly boys. It was about a man who was unhappy with his demanding wife, his noisy children and his small house. He went to his rabbi and the rabbi asked him if he had chickens. Of course everyone in the village had chickens. The rabbi told him to move his rooster into the house. The man did as he was told, and went back to the rabbi to complain that that had done nothing. Over subsequent visits the rabbi has the man move in his cow and then his donkey. Predictably, this made things worse. When the man returned to complain the fifth time, the rabbi told him to put all his livestock back in the yard. The man did and his small, noisy house was suddenly quiet and quaint. The man never complained again. I was thinking that to this ordinary family this extraordinary event was like the barnyard had moved into their lives.

“Oh, if only he was gay. We could deal with that. We sort of have always dealt with it. You know? The Barbies and the…well, we never talked about it out loud  but it was sort of there. You know? And then he moved in with Yolanda or she moved in with him a couple of years ago and we all were…well confused, you know? But relieved. And now…if only he was just gay.” Elsalane said wistfully.

I saw nothing really wrong with Daniel becoming Diane. And Diane loving Yolanda. It was a little round about, I suppose, but I, of all people, could understand the feeling of rightness that righted your whole world when you dared to love who you truly loved. And holding a woman did feel right to me. That was what my body responded, too. I might find it different if I had to relate to that body with a penis. It would not feel right to me. And obviously Daniel/Diane felt the same way some where at the core of his being. I smiled because the thought gave me warm flush of hope. Perhaps enough Daniels/Dianes and the world would start to question its hatred of people like me. Maybe it was possible for people to start thinking, “Hey, maybe there’s more to this than just a sinful choice. Maybe God did make them, too. And if God created them that way, then God intended them to be that way.” I smiled in a blissful, peaceful, no judging world for a moment.

Elsalane sat back with a little smile, too. She waved her coffee cup at me. “Of course, he’s going to hell regardless. But don’t you think it’s better to be Daniel in hell than Diana who used to be Daniel?”

©2015

At a Bus Stop

Until the morning the naked old lady sat in the middle of the street, we thought the house directly in front of ours was vacant. It had a look of recent and hurried evacuation to it. No car in the drive, browning grass strew with a few pieces of junk mail that had escaped the overflowing slot in the door, pulled blinds that had a lank and deflated dinginess to them.

Our own house had been a foreclosure. When we first came to see it nine months ago it had looked pretty much the same as the one across the street. Actually, it was worse. It had stood empty for four months, and before walking away from it, in the final months of their despair, the former owners had lost interest or energy to do much upkeep. I’d had to really work to get Shannon to see my vision of what the house could be with a little loving care.
She was uncertain. Shannon was willing to settle for something smaller in a less conservative part of town. “They might not appreciate us here,” she had said after peering up and down the winding street.

“Don’t we have the right to live where we want?” I had asked rather smugly.

She had looked at me from over the top of her sunglasses. “Frida, Rosa sat on the bus and Martin walked to DC for our skin, not our hearts.”

“They were gettin’ around to that I’m sure. But, in the meantime, here I’ll have room for my studio and you’ll have a place for that installation you call exercise equipment.”

She got a keen gleam in her eyes but was still doubtful. I appealed to the residue of snobby materialism that I knew was there; I had pointed out that the community bordered one of the most exclusive enclaves.

Sometimes our flaws can be good things.
No welcome wagon pulled up when we moved in; but they didn’t burn crosses on the lawn either.

The Holdens, the childless younger couple on our right, were distantly pleasant. They smiled. They waved. They asked bland questions. When you turned your back on them, if you happened to look back quickly, you would catch a bewildered, bemused blankness falling over their pale faces as they evaluated the exchange as if it had been a judged performance. Had they shown enough teeth in their smile? Had they raised their hands high enough and with enough animation? Had they put enough bright punch behind the unintentional stumble in the question, “And your…partner? How is she today?” to push beyond the hesitation so that the fragile sincerity was heard there by which ever one of us they spoke to?

I always came away from brief encounters with the Holdens feeling that something had been left incomplete or undone. It was like when you drive five miles and suddenly wonder if you unplugged the iron, or when you climb in to bed, snuggle close to the woman you love and have an urge to jump up to check the back door.

Shannon calls the Holdens the Greenies. ”Green politics, green money, green naivety,” she grumbles when she looks out the kitchen window and sees their line-up of recycling bins, or when Mr. Holden tries to explain about the waste water reclamation system he is planning to present at the next community meeting. “Green stink,” Shannon concludes.

Mr. Holden always asks Shannon why we aren’t at the meetings. They leave at about the same time every morning so she sees him more than I do. He can’t understand, either, why we don’t get the flyers. He keeps promising to let her know when the next meeting will be.

He never does but the apologies he gives while getting into his Prius seem sincere.

The Holdens at least make an effort to acknowledge us unlike the Windsons on the left. At least, we thought that was their name– Mr and Mrs. Windson. They have never introduced themselves. We were the ones left standing in a daze of deep introspection after we encountered them or their purple haired son on the street. We were the ones asking ourselves if we hadn’t spoken loud enough, or had our wave been blocked by the shrubbery, or maybe our various weight loss plans had kicked into action when we weren’t looking and we’d actually lost pounds and were unaware that we’d shrunk down to nothing overnight.

I thought Windson an unlikely surname. Shannon swears that’s what was on a piece of misdirected mail that she had taken over one afternoon. “Are you sure? Maybe there was an ‘l’ in there? Maybe?” I had teased just to see her nostrils flare.

I still think she’s cute when her nostrils flutter with her exhaled irritation.

She does not find my teasing as endearing as she once did. Ten years ago she would have flashed to anger prepared to burn me with her sharp tongue only to find herself melting when she realized I was trying to push her to a laugh. Now it takes less to flare her nostrils. Higher melt-point, I guess.

“I think I know my letters, thank you,” she had snapped on that day. She did have every right to be angry. Mrs. Windson had responded to her ringing the doorbell by parting the sheer panels on her fancy front door’s window panes and staring out as if no one stood there waving a windowed envelope on the other side of the glass. “Bitch couldn’t even part her lily white lips to say hello, oh hi, oh thank you, nigger, for bringing my mail over,” Shannon had ranted. “Should have kept the damn MasterCard bill. Charged it up.” Her nostrils went from nastee to just nasty and I had walked away to another room where I only had to listen to her voice banging into the walls.

I won’t mention what Shannon usually calls the neighbors on the left.

Due to the fact that the street curves as it flows down a hill– and because we haven’t yet agreed on a pet to walk–we only had to deal with those three houses; the Greenie, the Windsons, and that vacant one.

It bothers me sometimes that we are not more neighborly, or more involved with the community. Shannon tells me it doesn’t matter; it comes down to having each other, as we always knew it would. She reassures me but sometimes I think she wonders too.

Sometimes I think she imagines how different it would be if we’d stayed on the other side of town.

Yesterday was a hectic morning. My car was in the shop and so Shannon was driving me in. I really didn’t have to be at work early and so had indulge my desire to play when I woke up. She hadn’t complained during the play but was nothing but vocal blaming as we rushed to get out of the house. At the door, I was walking behind her when I ran in to her back. I had stood on my tiptoes to look over her shoulder to see what had stopped her. At first I only saw Mr. Holden standing on the curb. He looked like a man who’d just had his traveler’s checks stolen in a foreign country–glancing around for both authority and a translator. Looking beyond him I saw what I thought was a lumpy discarded kitchen trash bag in the middle of the street. One of those tall white bags with the red drawstring.

I have to admit that my first thought was, “Oh great, someone dumped their trash in the middle of the street. Why’d they have to do that in front of our house?

And then the illusion of a bag split and there were weak white arms flailing and a piteous moan.

Shannon said later that I pushed her and yelled at her to call 911. I remember it as pushing around her. I ignored Mr. Holden as I stormed out into the street. My momentum seemed to pull him along. I felt him coming up behind me as I knelt down next to what was an elderly woman. She was blue white with a streak of nasty red down one shoulder. She looked like one of those models of a human body that has been stripped of its flesh, muscle, and fat to leave a map of collapsed veins, swollen arteries, and nerves. I was afraid her wrist was going to snap when I gently held it between my fingers. I could feel her heart racing as if there was not enough blood to fill her and each pump had to cover great distances to do any good for her cold body.

Her nails were curved thick talons and they raked at me. Not in violence; it was like she was trying to clutch something warm. Her toothless mouth hung open and her coated white tongue poked from it with each moan. I thought of baby birds as I pulled her into me, trying to cover her nakedness and press into her whatever it was of mine she needed.

Mr. Holden dropped to one knee beside me. His eyes were in puddles. His face was blanched white except for three red spots: his cheeks and the tip of his nose. His mouth worked like a baby bird’s, too. He reached toward the woman.

“I wouldn’t touch her.”

I turned to see Mrs. Windson bending for her morning paper. Her eyes were on Mr. Holden. “Just leave her alone. She’ll wander back into that hovel she calls a house eventually.” Her hand gestured with the paper to the house across the street. She smoothed the pleats of the white tennis skirt she wore. “No telling what kind of…vermin she has.”

“You know her, Barbara?” Mr. Holden said, his voice an incredulous whine. “Barbara? You know her?” The simple question repeated was really many questions. You know this poor woman? You know this woman was over there? You know what’s happening?

A bright yellow sweater tied around Mrs. Windson’s neck rose as she shrugged.
Mr. Holden’s eyes spilled some of the liquid to his cheeks. Still looking at the woman dressed for tennis, he placed a firm hand on the old woman’s back. He stroked her skin.

I was watching his face. Shannon told me later that as the sound of sirens came up the hill, Mrs. Windson had snapped open her paper, browsing it while strolling into her house.

I was shattered after the ambulance left. We–Mr. Holden, Shannon, and I–had stared down at a discarded hypodermic sheath as the siren warble, rushing down the hill, switched in and out of our hearing. Don, who Mr. Holden had become as we’d watched the paramedics work, pursed his lips in and out, twisted his mouth from left to right like he was deciding where to spit a watermelon seed. “I didn’t know,” he declared finally. He walked away. His car did not move that day and neither did ours.

Shannon held me all night. Her physical arms were gone in the morning. I woke up missing her though I knew it was Saturday and I could hear her on the other side of the house in the kitchen. I had weird thoughts laying there. I tried not to imagine Shannon in the middle of the street with Mrs. Windson staring out her windowpanes and Don Holden teetering on the curb unsure what to do. Or another scenario; our house on fire, Shannon and I trapped inside, Don Holden wondering if he would conserve more water running a hose from his front yard or the back and Mrs. Windson in a lawn chair holding a bag of marshmallows for s’mores. Or, how about this one? A mob in white robes burning crosses and Don with hands in pockets while Mrs. Holden pointed to our door. Or, maybe the mob was not racist at all, maybe they would just want to convert us through rape. I could not tell what Don would do in that situation but something told me Mrs. Windson would be at her property line handing out tubes of lube and condoms. Who knew what vermin we had, after all.

“What’s so funny?” Shannon came in with a breakfast tray.

I sat up to make room for her. “We are between bland uncertainty and malicious indifference.”

The folds of skin on her forehead said that she hadn’t a clue what I was talking about, or maybe just didn’t care. There was no nostril flare though. She had a blue flyer trapped under one well defined arm. “Announcement about the community meeting,” she waved it at me. She set it aside. Picked it up. Set it down again. She held it again. “I think it was the old woman’s son or maybe grandson I saw just now. Putting a ‘for sale’ sign up across the street.”

For a brief second I thought that was something she was reading from the flyer. “You want to move, don’t you?” I was glad when she didn’t answer me right away. An immediate yes would have meant that she was thinking it was my fault we were there.

She set the flyer down again. “Did you know the Windson with breasts was a realtor?”

“How would I?” I asked after a moment.

Shannon shrugged.

“Do you want to move?” I asked again thinking it wouldn’t be like we were running away. We’d done a lot, invested a lot. We could call it flipping.

“Do you?” She reached in a pocket and held up a business card. “Just got this from a motivated professional.”

“The bitch didn’t,” I laughed.

“The bitch did.” She threw the card aside and picked up a roll from the tray between us. She chewed and swallowed. “What would MLK do?”

“He wouldn’t give her the listing.”

A slight flare of her nostrils. “About moving, Frieda. What would Dr. King do, you think?”

“Oh,” I took the roll from her. “Have a dream, give a speech, be assasinated.”

She allowed a laugh before taking the roll back. “And our girl Rosa?”

“Keep her head low and her ass in the seat.”

Shannon gave me more a chortle than a laugh as she moved the tray. “Well, let’s be Rosa.”

2015

cleaning out

Dan Blockman had last cleaned out his refrigerator seven years before his death. Oh, over those 2,555 days he did threw things out when they created UFOs (unidentified fridge odors) and he made a Tupperware cauldron of vinegar and baking soda to wipe down the walls but he had allowed no heavy cleaning of the ancient side by side Whirlpool. “It hums,” he’d declare when one of his three daughters went near it with scouring intentions. “It hums. Leave it alone.” he’d say; mildly to his ears, grumpily to his daughters’.

“Humming” was high praise from Dan. It was what he’d said of his wife to church women who brought homemade casseroles and soft, speculative pats of condolence. “That Marilyn, she was a hummer,” he’d respond watching them stuffing in all the things he had to take out seven years before he died. After they had sat in the fridge — in their juices, in their labeled dishes– a month, he’d cleaned out the tuna casseroles, the stewed chicken in saffron rice, the prune and banana puddings. He’d removed metal racks, pried into the folds of gaskets, vacuumed the motor. When he killed the polished light bulb and leaned against the vibrating door, he was well pleased. The fridge was cleaner than when it had come and, save for a thick milk glass jug of water and three boxes he had found in the bottom crisper, it was empty.

He was pleased with the result of his effort but he was disturbed by what he had found. After paying for it with cash and seeing it delivered, he’d never had much to do with the fridge (or the kitchen) while Marilyn was alive. Having never paid much attention to the coffin size box — other than to remind his girls that they couldn’t cool the state standing in the open door or to be reminded himself that orange juice went into glasses — he hadn’t known the fragile windowed boxes were there. Not knowing what they were, he’d been ready to toss them in a garbage bag. A hasty look showed that they weren’t the pastries he’d expected to see and he’d slid them to a countertop out of his way for the cleaning. After admiring the way the inside of the box glowed after his work, he’d tentatively replaced them because they must have been important to his wife for some reason. He’d been unsure where they’d come from. Proms? Graduations? Weddings? Marilyn was dead now. A month dead and whatever they had meant, the memories were just as dead. It was pointless to keep them. He had reached again to throw them away and he saw his own hand without loose skin, spots and swollen knuckles holding these boxes. Recalled his once nimble but large and suddenly awkward fingers trying not to prick her through white cotton gowns. Felt his lips on her sweaty brow. Saw the appreciation she glowed with when he did not make her feel apologetic or guilty that it was not a boy. Each time he’d proudly announced, “Reckon we’ll keep her. She’s a hummer.”

He had left the boxes where they were. Closed the door and letting it support his grief, he had cried as he hadn’t been able to for the past month, as he hadn’t perhaps ever cried in his sixty-nine years of life. After his tears he could not say he felt better only washed out and as empty as the fridge. And as useless, for what was he to do? In that pause, before he had time to realize he was staring at the wooden block of kitchen knifes, the refrigerator had clicked. It had been silent through out the cleaning as if it was sulking like a hard working dog will after a good bath, and like a good working dog it had decided that perhaps it could like this cleanliness and its vibration behind him as if started to hum was like a lick on his hand. He could almost hear Marilyn’s laugh and her assurance that it there was no emptiness here after all. There was cool water inside and three boxes.

He had used the back of his work reddened hands to scrub away the dampness from his cheeks. He blustered and became embarrassed, made sounds like the refrigerator did three days later  just before it stopped cooling, stopped humming.

Back then, seven years before his death and a month after their mother’s, his girls had still been competing to see who could be the best caretaker of poor dad. He mentioned to the first one who called that he needed to see about the fridge that had stopped humming and by evening they were all there in the kitchen clucking around it like there had been another death. They thought he should replace it with something new and dependable. After all, that box had been around as long as they. He insisted it would hum again. “That one there just can’t stand a cleaning out is all.”

They could not understand his sudden attachment to a kitchen appliance. He could not explain his loathing to disturb three boxes.

A couple of repairmen later it did hum. Sputtered sometimes late at night. Wobbled on worn heels when slammed. Cleared its throat with ominous coughs. Farted out its backside and allowed noxious odors to slip out its cracks. But then, so did Dan. He could live with all that.

And he did for seven years. Dared anyone to approach it with anything more caustic than a soft sponge.

Then he died.

For seven days the refrigerator endured warehouse store casseroles and paper buckets of fried chicken. On the eighth day Janet removed most of what had to be emptied so containers could go back to mourners. Two days later Pauline came through with a realtor and found it warm. The next day Sandra was to wait for men to come to take it away.

The evening before that all three came to check closets, fold things to be donated, peer under beds for anything overlooked. They discussed saving the three corsages: once pink, yellow, lilac. They could not imagine what they represented; just dead flowers held to memories of vibrant life through ribbons. They did remembered seeing the boxes through the years. As little girls, they had not cared. As young teens they had sometimes peered in the plastic windows and imagined princes in their futures. Older, certain their stoic father had not given these old fashioned tokens, they did not want to think of their mother pinned by boys, and so had never asked. Young women, they no longer saw them behind the holiday stuffing of the fridge when they had come to visit home. Truly grown women, they’d had no reason to open the fridge unless it was to look for evidence that the folks were eating properly or to deposit essentials they had been asked to bring. Too old to be called orphans now, they set the boxes on the table as a centerpiece while they talked about other things that had to be done to close out their parents’ lives.

As they talked each had thoughts about the boxes. Pauline, the baby, thought perhaps they were left over from adventures her older sisters had without her. Janet, the middle child, thought they marked the deaths of some family members she had never met. Sandra, the oldest, could dare to imagine that her mother must have had lovers after marriage or many suitors before; it was a certainty her father had not given them for he had not been a romantic, thoughtful, flower giving kind of guy. Hadn’t even cried after their mother died. Pauline never even considered that their father had anything to do with the corsages or that they had been given to their mother; her sisters knew all about the flowers and just weren’t going to tell her until she begged and she was not going to give them the satisfaction of doing that. Janet just wanted to get home; there was a program on ABC she wanted to see.

The three sisters did not share their thoughts  about the boxes as they stood around the table. Sandra summed up their decisions as if from a bulleted list. Janet looked at her phone to check the time.  The corsages may have been forgotten if Pauline had not pointed to them and asked, “What about these?”

They were tossed out with what sustains old men; expired milk, curled baloney rounds, processed tapioca.

2015

the pinch

She stood at the window framed by rabbits. Had always hated everything about them. The colors; weak yellow and stingy white. The texture, barely woven and stiff fabric impossible to name, too thin to be muslin, too flimsy to be duck, no nap but susceptible to pilling when washed (and that happened infrequently; the yellow hadn’t the strength to stand up to even mild detergents and the white–that that defined the creatures that hopped –it had been dyed by a miser and threatened to run even in the back spray from the sink). Oh, yes, she hated everything about those curtains. She hated even the birth of them.
As a young bride standing here at this window she’d gushed about the things she hoped to do to brighten the kitchen. It was her new home but decades old to those who had stood behind her listening to her plans for buttercup yellow paint and pastel spattered linoleum. They–her new husband, his sparsely bearded father, his loudly built brother, silent as a brook in winter sister-in-law and his flushed faced mother–they had become solid behind her like a bullet chipped brick wall. She’d thought she’d insulted them. Again. It seemed to be all she’d been doing since Matthew had brought her to them and named her wife, insulted or offend deep enough to make them cruel; as dense and as hard as that brick wall she felt behind her.
Everything she said or did was taken as a judgement that was vulnerable to appeal. Trying to be helpful, she’d sweep the floor. She’d hang the broom up on its hook and face lips pinched with indignation. The “helpful” act was obviously her new daughter-in-law’s way of saying the floor had been dirty. Mama Hillman would take the broom down and find crumbs she’d missed.

Trying to be sociable, she was too formal. “You mean Bar?” The sister-in-law had squeaked when she called the brother Bartholomew.

She did not know the plants. “They don’t teach you much in the city,” the brother had guffawed when she’d asked the name of some wild flowers she’d picked for the kitchen table and he’d shook his head and he’d walked away and he didn’t mention the toxic nature of the plant until she complained about the rough and seeping rash on her hands two days later.

“Speak plain, woman,” was what she got from the old man any time she tried to engage him in conversation beyond a greeting.

Grimaces and winces were what Matthew gave her as if everything she did, every utterance she made, was a stomp on a tender corn on a broken toe.
She had a yearning to be somewhere else. It was never clear how she had gotten from this dusty corner to the city blocks she walked in her fantasies and by the time her mind began to work out the actions that would make it real she was almost certain she was pregnant. Before she had decided if she even wanted to be, her mother-in-law had used some farmwife magic to confirm the pregnancy and used her matriarchal power to announce it at a Sunday dinner.
Handing her husband the platter of pot roast her mother-in-law had said that the family kitchen was now Matt’s bride’s kitchen. Bar’s wife had tried to pry his eyes from the tabletop but his ears were heavy with blood and he could not lift his head as his mother continued to say that her daughter through Matt needed to make this a place for she and Matt and whatever came from she and Matt now that there was something actually coming from she and Matt. It had been as convoluted as that and they had all taken a moment to work out what the old woman was saying before they were sure if ‘congrats’ were due the couple. Matt had been stunned, his face looking as if it had donated all the blood that flushed his brother. It had frightened her. Angered her, too; being robbed of the right to share that moment with her husband (and robbed of the time to adjust to the newness of what her body was doing seemingly without her permission). Yes, she was angry but most of what she had felt was fear and hurt. The way Matt’s eyes came her way but never quite settled on her said that maybe he, too, wasn’t sure if he wanted something that came from their union. Fear made her nervous and she had been the first up to clear the table.

She had stood at the sink running dishwater and listening to Bar tease Matt about not lifting a hand to help her in her delicate condition. Bar’s wife had asked her back what changes she would make and she had started sharing plans for paint and floors and curtains until she had felt the bricks being laid behind her. “It’s a lovely view,” she’d assured them gesturing out to where the land ran green to a line of trees and a hint of valley beyond, a fence and a horse just visible to the left. “It’s a wonderful view. Curtains would just frame it. You know like a…”
The old man had snorted a whinny of distain.
“Like some godawful picture in a gallery.” Bar had dragged the gal away from alley and stuck in a rough belch of laughter.
“We ain’t never had no curtains up there before,” Matt had sounded apologetic to his family; as embarrassed as he would have been if her suggestion had been to removing all the doors– interior and exterior–and bring in the chickens.
“Mama Hillman always said–”
“I can speak for myself, Daughter Bar,” Mama Hillman’s voice was never raised, it was oil on the water of the others. “Curtains are a nuisance in a working kitchen, true to God that is but I’ve given over the kitchen,” She’d looked around as if she too did not think it much of a gift. She’d shrugged. “The kitchen and the house given to Daughter Matt. If she wants her some curtains then…” Another shrug and a sigh.
Matt, the man who had courted her with fresh flowers, small presents, moderately expensive meals and cab rides, had questioned the expense. His bride reminded him gently that she was the thrifty one and could sew. And before he could find another excuse Mama Hillman had recalled she had just the thing. Fabric she’d saved for her girl’s Easter dress. Yellow to match the walls if they ever got painted. And who said rabbits meant to dance on young girl’s thighs could not frolic around a kitchen window?
Though she in reality she actually preferred the openness of the curtain less window, and could not imagine where her foolish design plans had come from, the new owner of the kitchen had had to bite her tongue and accept this gift of cloth from a woman who had only produced boys.
Mama Hillman had died shortly after that. It had nothing to do with the curtains of course but it was why the curtains still hung there fifteen years later. Any time she suggested removing them Matt had to remind her that it had been his mother’s dying wish that those curtains be there.

Matt recalled past, present and future as they were in his fantasy. And where Teresa Gains Hillman might have corrected him, Daughter Matt no longer bothered.

Except today, she thought pinching aside the hated curtains. Today she was going to have to relinquish Daughter Matt. Only Teresa Gains Hillman could bring some reality into his world. It was going to crush him as if had her but it was a weight of stone she could not bear on her shoulders alone. Not like letters from school about Matt Jr. Or hiding the true price of a pair of shoes for Virginia. Or how she cut and stitched and patched income to match outgo like the reworking she did to her own dresses so that Virginia could have those new shoes.

Out the window she saw the plume of chestnut as the stallion flicked his tail and ran along the fence.

Her hand dropped from the rabbits and brushed against her pocket. She felt the hard cylinder inside it. Did not reach in but washed her hands as if she had. As if the thing was still wet and fresh and dirty. She heard a honk of a distant horn. The school bus down the road complaining about the Gravens children being late again no doubt. She thought about her own children sitting there on that bus. Matty was probably not sitting though. Her twelve year old son was probably squatting in the aisle, one eye on the driver’s back, the other on a girl’s budding front while he planned some mischief with the Dooland twins. And Virginia…she hoped the senseless girl had enough sense to smile when smiled at, answer when called on, pretend. Today she would need to pretend that she was yesterday’s Virginia still.

Well, maybe not yesterday’s. Maybe not even last week’s Virginia. Who knew how long the girl had been holding this secret now evidenced by the wand in Teresa’s sweater pocket. It had been yesterday morning that Teresa had found her crying at this very window. Some silly girl thing she had thought shaking her fourteen year old around to look at her.

And she’d known. Just by the clarity of Virginia’s cheeks, the intensity of her eyes in the reddened puddles, the feel of her flesh when she pressed her fingers into her child’s shoulder. Virginia had wailed, “Oh, Mama, Oh!” She’d forced her mother’s arms into a hug like she was again a toddler. Teresa had smoothed her hair and could only whisper, “You sure?” As she thought about being awakened by the sound of water over the sound of retching two or three days. “You sure?” And she thought about how a boy’s name and giggles had been all she’d heard from Virginia a month ago and then three weeks ago only the name and two weeks ago nothing at all. She seen how her Daddy’s girl had hidden herself away from his teasing and hugs. Had seen her daughter abruptly shut down the monitor screen when someone entered the kitchen. Had noticed how her whispers on the phone shifted to loud homework questions when someone was close enough to hear. “You sure?” And Virginia’s head had shook cupped in her hand. “No, but…Oh, Mama. I’m so…”

Teresa thought of years of bedtime stories, piano lessons, scrimping to save for camps, insisting that there be a chemistry set under the Christmas tree when Matt thought a pretty doll was enough, coaching for spelling bees, stacking index cards for tests, the glow of the computer set in the corner of the kitchen where there was no room for it but where it could be seen, the rules, the consequences, the compliments on how smart her baby girl was, her own smugness with Bar and her delight in adding a name under Bar’s daughter’s name in the family Bible when there was a blank spot after the line that should have linked married pairs, all the awards and certificates and combing the hair. Teresa almost choked on that thought-baby fine to shiny curls to narrow braids to the heavy silk it now was–she thought of combing the hair she stroked when she said, “Let’s not say there’s wind until the vane twists.” And she’d sent Virginia up to wash her face before her father and brother returned from their morning chores.

They sure could say wind now. The truth of the twist was in her pocket. Her pocket was the safest place for what she did not want Matthew to see and there was that white stem next to the drugstore receipt and a final warning from the school district about Matty’s bus privileges. And lint and some gum wrappers. She squeezed it all against her hip hoping something there could erase the lines that made a negative positive but knowing it was impossible to stop an iron cock spinning away from the coming hurricane.

The outer door squeaked. The rattle of a jacket being hung. Heavy footsteps meant he was agitated enough to have forgotten to remove his boots. The inner door. A rattle. A clearing of throat. Matt crossed behind her to the coffee pot.

“We need to talk, Matthew.” Teresa cringed. It had slipped out. If he was in a mood he’d remind her that Matthew had written the first gospel and she had not married a disciple.

But he didn’t say that. He didn’t pick it up like something she’d thrown down as accusation. He poured his mug of coffee and walked away. She heard the banging of drawers and shuffle of papers. “Talk. Damn right we do,” he said from outside the room. Irritated but not directing it at her. He held his green book of notes when he came back.”When was that? How long ago?”

Teresa looked at the rabbits on the curtains. “When was what?”

He was trying to do several things: gulp coffee, turn pages, shake out the earpiece of his glasses so he could put them on, pull out a chair at the table so he could sit. He paused all that to look at her and she saw the eyes of the young man who had caught her arm in a restaurant and asked if she could possibly, maybe, if he wasn’t being too forward to ask and it looked like she was unescorted but gosh she was just, would she maybe let him buy her a cup of coffee? Maybe? And the smile he gave her mirrored the one she’d gotten when she said yes, coffee sounded just wonderful. But then he put on the glasses and was Matt again. He sat and still paging through his book of notes grinned shaking his head, “Gettin’ old, Ter’sa. Of course how could you know what? What? When? Damn it all. That stallion getting in to the pasture with Glenda. When was that?”

She watched him flip pages. Her hand touched her forehead and then she touched her pocket. She glanced behind her and was surprise that they were alone. “Matt Hillman, I don’t –”

“Course you do. I told you. Didn’t geld that stallion soon enough.” His wicked laugh said that even though he was disgusted he was proud of the animal. “Skipped on out of his paddock and went to visit old Glenda. Told you that.” He studied a page intently but frowned not seeing what he hoped to see there. Flipped back a few more pages. “I didn’t think much could have happened. Her too old, him too green but…”

She watched him settle into a page of his chicken scratches with his mouth open, his eyes attempting to look above the spectacles but through them too. She only realized she had sat because faint dizziness had not sent her to the floor. “What are you saying then?”

He blinked her into focus. “Saying? Was it a month ago? Six weeks?” He closed the notebook and left the room.

She cleared her throat. Some things were perhaps easier to say with a wall between them. “Matt, we need to talk about–”

“A month and it’s an easy fix. Timing is everything.” He came back with the wall calendar that Virginia had given him for Christmas. A girl’s club project having pictures and quotes about fathers and daughters. Very professional looking. Teresa had helped Virginia select the photos and find the quotes. Matt had held it for a long time on Christmas morning and made constant use of it. “If ain’t been more than six weeks, a shot of that stuff will…or two or three shots.” He looked up at his wife shaking his head. “Damn durn it, Ter’sa. You reckon it’s the alhammers?”

She smiled so he would laugh at the shared memory of what Matty had called his grandfather ailment. And he did laugh squaring the edges of his notebook and calendar as he removed his reading glasses to look out the window. “More than six weeks and I’ll have to get Doc Volger to pinch it.”

“Doc Volger?”

Matt’s raised eyebrow asked if she was the one with alhammers. “Yep. Doc Volger. The vet,” he said slowly with a lilt and half grin.

“The vet?” Teresa mindlessly repeated thinking about the money. And only after she repeated it a second time did she get a sense of what he was saying.

“Can’t be helped. Got to spare old Glenda that. Six weeks and I can give her that post… ah …prosta ….postum ….whatever it is. Have to call Ken and ask him about that. He had that mismate with one of his and missed a whole season breeding that mare but it came out all right. And it can’t be helped. Got to spare old Glenda that especially the way she likes to pop up with twins. End up having to pinch one anyway. Imagine her with even one foal? As contrary as she’s gotten? Kill me and the horse.”

“Foal?” Teresa’s little laugh stopped his bigger one. Hers did not have anything like humor in it. Hers was like the sickening sound of an axle breaking, or a foundation slipping, or a table of heirloom china collapsing. It hit him somewhere in the chest, dropped his lungs to his knees or lower, somewhere air could no longer reach them. He coughed and when she said that they had to talk, that it was important, he said over her words. “Got to call Ken. Find out the name of that stuff …prostrate? No, that’s what killed old Harry. What the doctor checks when he puts on those rubber gloves and tells you to bend over.” He shortened his laugh. “But you women wouldn’t know anything about that.”

No, Teresa thought, we wouldn’t know anything about that. Can’t understand the indignity and discomfort of a finger or two up our asses. Try a fist up you with a baby’s head at one end and a grown man’s hairy wrist at the other and then let’s talk about what women know. She felt sick. Her hand fluttered from the lip of her pocket to pinch the lips of her mouth closed. She held her tongue with her teeth for a moment as she listen to Matthew try out some more words that might be that magic shot to spare poor Glenda and him the trouble of a foal. She drew in breath through her nose and held it. Meant to release all she was holding when she exhaled but only got out, “Virginia…” before she was stopped by the quality and quantity of  moisture in his eyes. Ocean deep it appeared to be, fathoms of it before you could see his irises. So much moisture that even though they stared at each other neither of them was able to say they saw each other before they looked to opposite corners. And yet both of them could not deny they saw each other clearly and completely even though they both stared at yellow walls for a moment.

Of course he knows, she thought. His ears were better than hers. He’d never been the first to rise in the night when one of theirs cried out or coughed but he’d frequently been the one to nudge her out of exhausted sleep to tend to the noise. He would have heard all that she’d heard. Seen all that she’d seen. He’d asked her, “What do we know about this boy?” when the boy had been all that Virginia had spoken of. In their darken bedroom he’d asked her, “You have had those words with Ginny? Those mama words?” when Virginia no longer spoke the boy’s name. She had seen him stand with raised empty arms looking after his retreating daughter. She knew he knew. He knew she knew. He knew what she’d propose doing too. And she knew what he would say about that. He’d already said it in their darkened bedroom when Bar’s situation had happened. “Never my child. Never that. Never any girl stupid enough to let that happen. Murder is what it is and I won’t have you suggest it to Bar.” Of course at the time his Ginny had been still in overalls following him out to pasture and corral with not even a hint of swelling above the pudge of her tomboy belly. And they both knew the good girl they had raised would always be the good girl they expected.

Still a good girl but…

And still “never my child” was what she would hear if she spoke the possibility of a reprieve that even old Glenda was going to get.

Her hands were in her pockets and she thought the white plastic might snap so tightly was it held in her fist. She stared at the window and the rabbits running around it.

Matthew picked up his coffee mug and stared in to it. He stretched after setting it down. “Burning daylight here, Ter’sa. Guess I need to call Ken. Call Doc Volger. Probably end up doing that pinch. I think it was almost two months ago. Yeah. Damn stupid me. It is the alhammers for sure I think. Old Glenda was in season two months ago so…” After the show of hitting his forehead with his fist, he made the concession of taking her hand. “No telling what that pinch is going to cost. We’ll manage. Always have. Ginny’s gonna have to do without that dress she wanted for that dance. That’s what you wanted to talk about. Saw you two conspiring through the window. Sorry to break her heart but it will not be the only time she has to wear last year to this year but…we will manage.” He raised her hand almost to his lips before letting the chair legs screech back so he could stand.

Inner door. She listened to the pause that said he thought about putting on the boots he was already wearing. Outer door squeal. Firmly shut.

She looked at the rabbits. How she hated those curtains. One day she was going to rip them down. One day.

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