short fiction by
Poetry book, 280 pages, cover price $14
($10 if ordered from the MSR Online Bookstore)
short fiction by
Poetry book, 280 pages, cover price $14
($10 if ordered from the MSR Online Bookstore)
Jessica kicks off her flip flops and, still standing on the braided rug in front of the sofa in her living room, lays her violin on the coffee table. She’s been trying, unsuccessfully, for over thirty minutes to concentrate enough to practice. She combs the fingers of both hands through her long straight black hair as she listens to the rain that started while she was driving back to the boat dock on the mainland after her weekly violin lesson in Savannah.
What is she going to do?
She thinks maybe her spiritual director was wrong to suggest that she spend some time alone in this isolated cottage beside the marsh on the inland side of Hamlin Island. She has now been here almost six months and, if anything, is even more unsure than before about what to do next to get her life moving again.
She hears a bump outside against the cottage and pushes aside the thought that her phone has been out of order since yesterday. As she places the violin back under her chin, pounding rattles the front door. “Hey in there,” yells a man.
Jessica jerks down the violin. She backs around the sofa and into the kitchen. The pounding and yells continue as she lays her violin and bow on the counter. She grabs a long bladed fish knife out of a drawer and tiptoes out of the kitchen and back across the living room to the window beside the door.
She hears only wind gusting and rain falling like pebbles against the roof. Tightening her fingers around the knife handle, she looks on top of the piano at her daughter, Connie’s picture taken on her ninth birthday, two months before her death. Red hair frizzes around Connie’s face, and she grins, showing her two crooked upper teeth. I don’t want to die, too, Jessica thinks.
She pulls back a corner of the curtain. Rain splashes the edge of the porch. Beyond it live oak trees draped with Spanish moss melt into darkness. Then she sees the man. His forehead leans against the door. Ropes of wet hair falls against his neck and shoulders. Water glazes his back and plasters his swim trunks against his legs. Who is he? Where has he come from? It’s a twenty-five minute boat ride to the mainland, and she knows everyone on the island? the four families at the north end, the six families in the center of the island, the dozen or so families who work for Frontier Research at the south end.
As if reading her thoughts, the man straightens and shakes the door knob. “Hey, anyone in there?”
Jessica drops the curtain and points the tip of the blade at the door. “Who is it?”
“Alan Jenkins. I need a place to stay.”
“A place to stay?”
“I’m paddling my surfboard down the coast. Open the door, and I’ll tell you about it.”
Jessica studies the knife blade, the nicks along its edge. Should she believe him? Occasionally people do get stranded on the island. Once a sailboat blew against the dock during a storm and the propeller unscrewed itself and dropped off. The islanders barely managed to catch that boat and tow it in before it got carried out to sea.
She listens to water rushing down the gutter drain attached to the post beside the front steps. He can’t stay overnight but if he needs help, it would be unthinkable not to give it.
She opens the door and stares at him through the screen door. “You’re paddling a surf board down the coast?”
“Right. A long board. Actually it’s the inland waterway.” Rain water glistens on his high narrow forehead and beads on his thick sun bleached eyebrows. Beneath tanned cheeks, sparse, light hair stubbles his jaw and pointed chin. He can’t be more than twenty or twenty-two. He steps back, staring at the knife blade aimed at the middle of his chest.
“Wait there. I’ll show you.” He disappears and she hears bumping and thumping. He reappears holding a flattish board nine or ten feet long and a couple of feet wide. The surfboard is white with lengthwise blue stripes. He jerks his head to one side, and his hair slings water droplets into the air. He grins showing all his teeth. “This is Murdie.”
“All right,” Jessica says, lowering the knife to her side. “I guess you can come inside.” After he leans the surfboard against the outside of the house, he walks inside, his gaze roaming over the faded flowered slip covers on the easy chair and sofa, the black enameled upright piano with its chipped ivory keys, the stained ivory plaster walls, the umbrella stand with an arrangement of sea oats beside the entrance to the kitchen and dining area. He rubs his hands over his chest and shoulders. “Nice place.”
“It needs work.” Jessica nods at the blanket draped over the back of the sofa. “You can use that if you want.”
“Thanks.” He throws the blanket around his shoulders. In the dim light a rim of blue shows around the enlarged pupils of his eyes. He blinks and she notices that his light colored lashes are wet and some have clumped together.
“I’ll fix you something to eat,” she says, “but you can’t . . . Stay here.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” he says rubbing a corner of the blanket over his chest and shoulders. He swipes the blanket across his face. “I’m really a nice guy.”
Jessica draws the insides of her cheeks between her teeth.
He grins. “Promise.” He looks over his shoulder in the direction of the door. “When this storm started up, I figured I better come in. Right? I’m harmless. I swear.”
He looks at a black plastic rimmed watch strapped to his arm. “Seriously, though. If I can’t stay here, at least tell me where to go.”
“Let me think a moment,” Jessica says. She walks into the kitchen and leans against the counter. She looks at the telephone. Why of all times wasn’t it working? She could drive Alan up to one of the families at the north end. He’d probably be happier with more people around, but its five miles up the oyster shell road and there are no street lights, of course. And what if her head lights go out? It’s been so long since she’s changed a tire, she doesn’t know if she got a flat if she could. Especially in the dark. She could always ask someone to follow her all the way home. She looks back across the room into the living room. He’s standing in front of the piano with his back to her, the blanket still around his shoulders. He lifts one foot and scratches the back of his leg with a toe. He doesn’t look or act like a rapist or murderer. But she’s been wrong before. She sure misjudged her husband.
She lays the knife on the counter beside her violin and walks back into the living room. “I’ve got some soup left over from supper. I’ll heat some of that.”
“Cool,” he says turning to face her. “I was worried I’d stressed you too much?” He grins and holds out his arms stretching the blanket into a square behind his back, exposing his deeply tanned torso. “Now, how about letting me use the restroom?”
“All right.” Jessica gets a clean hand towel out of the hall closet and points at the bathroom door just beyond it.
But first he goes back outside. He returns holding the handle of an oblong plastic bag. The top of the bag appears to have been rolled over and snapped in place with large grommets.
“Dry Bag,” he says following her gaze. “Got some shorts in it, wet suit, towel, little food in case I get caught out away from anywhere. Got my tent in another one.”
She tries to picture how he’d carry two dry bags on a surf board, and as soon as he disappears into the bathroom, she walks out on the porch. She sees the surfboard propped on its side against the side of the cottage. A curved wooden fin sticks out like a hook on the bottom of the end closest to the porch. A black cord of some kind is attached to the surfboard and lies in loops over the rim. A slightly larger bag like the one he carried inside lies on the porch against the side of the cottage. She finds it difficult to believe that a mere bag can be that water proof.
When she goes back inside she hears the shower running. She hadn’t thought about him wanting to bathe and wonders if he plans to dry off using the hand towel. The only other towels in there are ones she’s been using. But maybe he wouldn’t care. She hates to think about him using the toilet. She thinks about AIDS and STD’s, and the way her grandmother always made her cover public toilet seats with tissue.
She rubs the bare fourth finger on her left hand and walks down the hall. As she passes the bathroom, she hears a thunk, followed by “Shit,” then splashing sounds and a deep voice belting out in monotone some unfamiliar rap song. She hurries into her bedroom and shuts the door. She opens the bottom drawer in her dresser, reaches under a stack of tee shirts and takes out a small wooden box. She dumps the contents onto her bed: two pins she won playing her violin, her wedding ring, and the gold baby ring someone had given Connie, which Jessica would never let her wear for fear she’d swallow it. She slips the wedding ring on her finger and returns to the kitchen.
She thinks about Freddie. They ran off and got married by a Justice of the Peace instead of going to one of their high school dances. They spent their wedding night in the back seat of Freddie’s car. They kept their marriage a secret until Freddie’s father came home early one night and caught them on the family room sofa.
She takes the left over vegetable soup out of the refrigerator and dumps it in a sauce pan.
It begins to rise to a boil when Alan appears in the kitchen. He has changed into tight white canvass shorts and a navy tee shirt that clings to his chest and shoulder muscles. He combed back his damp hair, molding it into a polished shell against his head.
“I used some of your shampoo,” he says. “It was on the side of the tub.”
Jessica sucks in her cheeks. “It’s all right.”
He bends his elbows and placing his finger tips against each other, pushes against them, making his chest muscles swell. He shuts his eyes and breathes in and out. “Onions. Nothing smells better than onions cooking.”
“It’s just vegetable soup.” Jessica has been stirring the soup with her right hand. She shifts the spoon to her left hand, displaying her wedding band. She continues looking at the soup. She listens to him breathing as he flexes his muscles, then, he grows quiet.
“I didn’t figure you for married,” he says. “I guess your husband will be coming in later?”
Jessica stirs the soup and scrapes the edge of the spoon across the bottom of the sauce pan. “The soup’s about ready. Why don’t you go on and sit at the table? Then I’ve got some things to do. But help yourself to more soup if you want.” She sets an apple on the table, puts three slices of whole wheat bread on a plate and takes the margarine from the refrigerator. “I never eat desserts, so I don’t have any cookies or anything like that.”
“Whew,” he says, leaning back in his chair and looking at her. “Not much on doing anything fun, are you?”
Warmth spreads across Jessica’s chest and throat, and drawing her lips into a line, she walks into the living room. Beyond the doorway, where he can’t see her, she stands and listens to him slurping his soup. It’s now been a little over three years since Freddie died, and she’d almost forgotten the loud male sounds a man sometimes makes, that casual approach to how their actions affect another. She’s grown used to quiet, and order, and not having to adapt herself to anyone.
She walks in the bathroom and turns on the light. The shower curtain has been jammed back against the wall and the bath mat lies in a soggy heap between the tub and toilet. Wet navy swim trunks are draped across the shower rod. The shampoo bottle sits on the corner of the tub. He hasn’t replaced the lid and she screws it back on. She pulls out the shower curtain leaving spaces at both ends to allow air to circulate.
In her bedroom, she stands at the window, rests her palms on the peeling white sills. Rain sweeps the dark glass panes. She sees her reflection, her blurred face and pale indistinct arms, and imagines herself submerged in a bathysphere, the watery world outside distant and unreal. For years, her friends said how lucky she was to be married to Freddie. And she’d believed them.
They’d started with nothing, but right out of college, Freddie had designed a line of biodegradable storage containers, and started manufacturing them. They sold well. Jessie managed the office. They took out a mortgage on a house, and soon after, the island cottage. He’d been popular, a community leader, and Connie had adored him. But Jessie had started feeling empty and fragile. She stopped working for Freddie and got a job at the vet clinic. She volunteered at the elementary school. Freddie kept urging her to lighten up, buy some new clothes, get a new hair style, go out to lunch with her friends more.
When she finally told him that what she really wanted to do was take up the violin, after having not played since she was in her high school orchestra, he bought her a violin and paid for lessons. But instead of lightening up, she dropped all her other activities and practiced hours every day, desperate to succeed at something of her own.
She hears a chair scrape in the living room and then piano cords-C, Diminished F and a repetitive five note melody. She straightens the crocheted dresser scarf and lines up her comb and brush, a picture of Connie, Freddie and herself standing on the dock, taken by the ferry boat captain on one of their vacations. She combs her hair, then, noticing a tomato soup stain on her shirt, changes into a blue tee shirt and goes into the living room.
Alan lifts his hands off the piano keys and pivots on the piano stool to face her. His hair has begun to dry and the light reflects gold highlights in it. He looks over his shoulder at Connie’s picture on top of the piano. “That you?”
Jessica shakes her head. “My daughter. Connie. Her hair was lighter than mine.”
“She died three years ago.”
“I’m sorry.” Alan places his right thumb nail against the highest piano key and draws it down the keys. Slowly he walks his fingers back up the keys, his thumb crossing under his fingers and pressing the next key.
“It’s all right.”
Nodding he plays a chromatic scale of cords using both hands. He stops after two octaves. “My folks never got over my older brother’s death.”
Jessica steps closer to the piano. “Me neither over Connie. Really.”
Alan looks down at the piano keys and speaks softly. “My brother didn’t just die or have an accident or anything. He shot himself. Stole the gun from a neighbor. My folks never even owned a gun.” Alan plays several cords.
“The whole thing got written up in the paper.
Then someone wrote a short story about it. It about killed Mom. She blamed herself and Dad for not being good parents.”
“Yeah. But you know something? Out on the water, none of that shit matters. It’s just sky, water, sun.” He grins at Jessica. “And nice chicks when you come ashore.”
Warmth spreads up Jessica’s neck and across her cheeks. “Do you see your folks often?”
“Nope. I’m out of that town. Once I get to Miami, I’m going to practice up on my surfing, then maybe go to some contests out on the west coast, Hawaii.”
He plays a number of cords, the notes dissonant, his fingers spread and curved into claws as he strikes the keys. At last lifting his hands, he stands up, stretches, and yawns. “All right if I crash on the sofa?”
“You can stay in the back bedroom. But you’ll have to change the sheets. The others have been on ever since my brother helped me move in back in the spring.”