This story is by Shalon Clevenger and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She needs rearranged.
Fresh cut grass and gasoline emanate from the front porch window and the mailman has puttered away from the driveway. Early in the morning is best for feeding livestock and drinking coffee.
She recalls, a miracle in and of itself, the cafe downtown, nineteen fifty-seven, cherry red Chevrolet. Who knew it would lead to a mountainside retreat, or prison, whichever she was feeling at any given time?
Where is he anyway? I need to stop by the market before the kids come trampling through the front door beligning straight for the refrigerator door. Two boys leave hardly a crumb for the girl in the middle who wears her smile like a life jacket.
I will get her something special today. She’s my sweet little girl.
Her boggled thoughts halt as the screen door slams, not in anger but neglect, its spring wound so tight it starts to close on the Achilles heel stomping through its swing. The clap of its wooden frame against the door jamb startles her.
Eyes peering through a fog of dehydration, she glances toward the hallway for a shadow to appear in its faithful swift stride. Today, she thinks, “I’m gonna find out where he’s hid my piano.” She loves her piano, even if she never learned to play all of the melodies of her youth. He didn’t like how she often hit two notes at once when the melody line called only for one, so decades ago she surrendered another dream simply to silence his criticism.
But he doesn’t appear. At once, she covers herself in modesty and wonders who has entered her home. He always give me a kiss when he comes home, unless he’s angry with me. I hope he’s not angry today. If it’s not him, then who?
She shuts her eyes. What else would she do all tucked in her bed with her night clothes on? Sleep is better than answers. For now, she knows sleep.
He needs relieved.
“I wish I could stay out here all day,” he says out loud to nobody at all. The relentless heat, dust rising to sip the humidity in the air, and stench of animal sweat might seem like compelling reasons for most to hibernate in an air-conditioned home. But once he swings open that screen door, he regrets to himself, “I’m the housemaid and head nurse, neither of which ever suited an assembly line ox like me.”
She never appreciated the fact that I slaved most of my life away so she could keep poppin out babies—the only humans in the house she ever showed affection for. Now, she can’t even take care of herself while my life’s relagated to giving her nourishment, meds, and a bath. She’s probably cuddled in her recliner right now laughing at what a doormat she’s made me. Barely six foot now, down a few inches from my cruisin days, I can still dance and bring tears to the ladies’ eyes with my smart jokes and quick wit. What she don’t know won’t hurt her, and these days she don’t know much.
My fifty-seven Chevy . . . those were the days she would taunt me with her flirtatious smile, reserved not for only me. She never appreciated my humor.
He releases his auger in disgust, turning toward the house. The cry of the needy invalid slaps him into reality—a sad reflection of a woman who can recall the color of a bruise on her first son’s leg but forgets the name of her father-in-law or the president of the United States.
Before the screen door hits its innocent frame, he bolts to the bathroom to relieve himself and wash his hands. He doesn’t even bother to say, “Hi, honey it’s me,” because she wouldn’t know him if he did. The disease is unforgiving. Glancing caddy corner through the hallway to see her losing ground in the blanketed recliner, he responds to a few texts and heads to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. She’ll be fine for a while longer. It’s not like she knows discomfort.
Once all the baby making ended, so did the sandwich making. You would think any respectable woman married to a patient, kind man who gave her eight children would be happy to pack his lunch for work. Not her. When it came time for food or sex, her mysteriously faithful migraines would appear. Like I always say, “Women want two things from a man—money and babies.” I gave her both and now I’m taking care of what’s left of her. Who’s taking care of me?
The dust swirls in the driveway, within minutes yielding to a heavy downpour. It won’t be long now.
The family has gathered and he’ll finally get what’s left of his life back. Enough of this housemaid nurse stuff, I’ve still got a lot of kick in my step, he proclaims to himself while picturing that lovely blonde he danced with at last month’s Elvis show. Somewhere between 50 and heaven, this woman could barely keep up with the crazy chicken legs of the monster killing his wife. Pawing and clawing at her with every twist and turn, he at once shook her to the core and drew her into a strange desire for more. As he recalls that night, a smile crooks the left side of his cheek, a morbid scene while he stands over his wife crumbled in a fetal heap on the recliner in the dark room.
“Honey, go ahead and meet your son. He’s waiting for you,” he feigns compassion.
She hears “your son” and closes her eyes again. She can’t bare to see his crooked smile, lording over her even in death, while he dare refer to that place she hopes will be her final escape from him—the monster in the ‘57 Chevy. Though she’s waited a lifetime for peace, she remains surprisingly amazed at his depth of evil. Even for him, the one whose violence spewed from his mouth and his hands their entire marriage, his neglect of her basic needs to sustain life now leaves her speechless. They think it’s the morphine keeping her quiet, but she knows it’s the trained response of an oppressed woman. So much she could say in these final hours, she realizes, but it’s never done any good to talk about the monster in the room. Peace! Glorious peace is the order of the day.
Oh, how I would love a drink of water. Maybe then I might finally tell him what a lousy lover he really was.
“Mom, I see you smiling. What on earth are you thinking about? Is it that time we left the concert and got lost in the parking lot? People thought we were drunk, giggling and weaving through all those cars. You remember that, mom?” her oldest daughter prompts, trying to keep that precious smile on her mother’s face.
“She’s not smiling. That’s just muscles twitching and moving her face while she’s fighting death. Never could just do what she was told.”
He has hastened her last days. The convenience of her demise has opened up a new world for him, and withholding food and drink is for her best, he convinces himself.
She’s been rearranged.
The casket, the flowers, and the monsters have been standing at the ready. Whether it was disease or disgust that ushered in that final breath, the monsters in the room have no hold on her now.