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melissa palmer

New Fiction


by Melissa Palmer

      Everything about her was perfect. Yet there was that weird empty feeling, like reaching into a pocket he swore was full only to come up with a hand full of dust. It gnawed at him inside as if there was something he’d left undone, an appliance he’d left running, something burning on the stove. It was hard to live like that, looking over his shoulder for phantoms that weren’t there. It made him itch. And it was something he could never make her understand. Jack felt guilty for it every morning when he disappeared into the back shed, every time he looked at her, all clean lines and symmetry, every second he hid behind a bush debating whether or not to light the match.
      She was still in bed. She’d be sleeping the sleep of princesses and queens for the better half of the morning, serene and untouched like a seamless doll. He could be sure of it today. Last night the Chardonnay flowed fast and steady the way it always did after a big closing. Soon the Harbages would be settled into the neighborhood for good and that would officially cross the most difficult to push home on this sliver of a street off of her to do’s. It was just last week they were mere, gasp, renters. But she’d convinced them, newlyweds or not, to take the plunge. The enormity of this feat in her eyes was hard to fathom, especially when he tried to do it. But she had persisted as always, and succeeded in her efforts to complete this little circle, her personal heaven, her dearest Twin Oaks.
      He ducked into a shadow as the sun peeked over the horizon. It would be a few hours before she started to stir. It could be all the time he needed.
      The shed was tucked back beneath two crepe myrtles. He was thankful for the curtain they dropped just in front of the door. They provided precisely enough cover to save the one spot of the Homestead he could call his own. It was a blot on the landscape she said, but as long as it couldn’t be seen from the street she had let it slide. It wasn’t much to look at, a relic from times gone by, possibly put there by the construction staff when the foundation was being poured, a tiny sore thumb that stuck out 40 yards from the palace. But he liked it for all it was. He appreciated the wear worn shingles and the way it leaned like a drunk refusing to lay down and sleep it off.
      Of all the things he could be doing right now was smoking really that bad? It didn’t bloat his liver or make him mean. It didn’t make him go digging for a fight. Hell, it was nothing like—he didn’t want to think about all the things it wasn’t like.
      But she didn’t see any of it that way. If she saw him standing here match in hand it would be war. Of that he was sure. It was the smell, she said, that she hated the most. It lingered on his clothes and smudged the furniture with marks no one could see but her. She had the eye for imperfection. She could root it out from a mile away. She could sniff out lost revenue from two towns over and God forbid they lose a cent. The price of home meant something much different to her than to him. But she talked about the house’s cost daily as if she would ever part from her bastion. He knew the objection had less to do with resale and more to do with regard. Her fellow homeowners would never condone that scent in the house, let alone keeping company with the likes of people who did. She couldn’t abide by such heinous disregard for property value. And so she made the decision to disapprove just as she made most others--by association.
      In this light the house gleamed like polished stone, more so than any other on the block. Mrs. Granger gushed over the care she’d taken to plant Double Flowering Almond along the periphery of the property. Crass, she said were the neighbors who settled for lazy landscaping, simple hedges and apple trees. They were amateurs who didn’t know better, she said. But the high maintenance choice exemplified personal care. The blooms screamed it from their delicate stems.
       He didn’t care either way. But April almost burst like a balloon when she received such a compliment from the matriarch of the clan. Meanwhile it had been he all along who picked the dumb bushes, not because it was the classy decision, but because that’s where she was standing at the time when he stopped to talk her, that lady from down the street. She wasn’t like the others, not the ones from last night. She was the woman from the big white house, the one they clucked their teeth over—that Mrs. MacMillan. He rarely talked to most neighbors in Twin Oaks, at least the ones who showed up for the meetings. But this one was different. She was the one with the roses.
      They were legendary, the biddies all said over clinking glasses, but not so for years. He wouldn’t know. It was all lost long before he and April moved in.
      She was there at the Meg-O-Mart that one Sunday he skimmed the aisles for items that made no difference at all. But as he gravitated toward the greenhouse he couldn’t help but stop at the sight. She stood among the potted plants and fertilizer, hovering over flowerbeds like a ghost. She didn’t care that he was looking, or didn’t notice. He wasn’t sure if she was chanting or praying. An uninformed witness might assume she was merely talking to herself, but they like so many others would be mistaken. This was the look of reverent abandon. Whomever it was she addressed was not of this world. Least of all, were they standing in the garden center.
      What a strange sight this woman was. Her long braid frayed at the top and bottom, like a school girl on a playground aged decades before she was ready. Light splotches and clods of dirt played war on her denim overalls in a collage of black and blue. She was somewhere that transcended fertilizers and shrubbery, the world of Chardonnay. There was a white smudge just under her eye that she didn’t notice despite the pink halo of angry skin budding up around it. He dropped the sacks at his sides. And then he did something if asked he could not reason or defend.
      He reached for her and brought her hands to him, pulling the woman nearer. It was as if he were taking the limbs of a rag doll. But he wanted to know what it was she muttered. He needed those words as much as she did right then. She said them over and over to him over like a song though he couldn’t hear them all. It was a lulling rhythm, a gentle lullaby that made him forget himself for that soft second.
      It was one of those things a person may experience once a decade if they are lucky, for most perhaps in a lifetime. He knew what he wanted and what he needed, neither of which were anywhere close to the azaleas and potting soil. The thought overwhelmed him as it mingled with the hushed sounds of the tiny specter in front of him. It buzzed in his ears like electricity. It filled him like promise.
      He snatched up the two small trees that flanked Mrs. MacMillan and got out of the store as fast as he could, taking the sharp right out of the lot to the one store that never made the list. He left her there to the vigil, grateful for the words she’d shared.
      No one seemed interested in this story. Last night when he finally spoke of that day, they were all more intrigued by the subject of his tale, the one they had condemned. He was the last to see her before the incident. Did she say what she was going to do? What of the mysterious flowers? The words flitted in careless questions so quickly they melted into a hum he could ignore. What was she thinking when she dug up that front lawn? They barraged him with hypotheses, all of which had no bearing, thoughts that were as restricted as the ties that bound them all together over hedge heights and afternoon tea. It was beyond their comprehension that the large white house still sat empty. The threat of panic loomed only once with discussions of the lawn. Who’d be tending it now that the old woman was away? The grass had no accountability for its actions and as it edged slowly past ankle high, they looked more and more urgently for someone upon which they could place the blame. They prattled on as if the words he spoke meant nothing and all the while April stared at him with that look, that compound look of contempt and pity. It told him she stayed despite the differences, because she was stuck now with an investment she could never predict would go bad. But he would never measure up.
      The grass was damp this morning, and as he crept out of the shadow he felt each blade, dozens of baby kisses just above his foot where the flesh and bone were one.
      She’d be sick if she saw him out here, stooping into his shed. If she knew what was in his pocket or what he was doing all these mornings instead of painting flowerpots like he said he’d do. He unrolled the thick paper and smoothed it under his hands. It was cool, cream white like an old bone. When he told her he bought new linens he hadn’t lied. It was a stretch, but it wasn’t a lie. He wouldn’t lie.
      But the eyes would always betray him.
      He had just enough time to lay things out as planned, gentle brushstrokes melting into measure, circles and shadows, lines and light, no questions, just motion.
      The old woman’s eyes had drawn him in and kept him there mesmerized. Her words and being brought him in, but it was her eyes that became the magnet. He couldn’t move. They were like cornflowers, not the dead eyes of lost hope, but the kind that dance in the light, eyes with a life behind them. His moves were silent despite the rushed nature of his task. He was precise when he needed to be, laying in the muted tones and trying over again to capture that light. He understood that. He knew those eyes. He would make them his. He gave them life as he painted.
      Pigg would be waking up soon. The little one took after him rising early. The others were more like their mother and would take their time, but the youngest liked the new morning sun. He wiped his hands clean of the light blues and golds stuck under his nails and satisfied with what he had, set back into the day as if the interlude hadn’t happened.
      The neighborhood was most alive in the morning. All these houses looked so much better by themselves, without all the clutter of small talk and posture. If they would have asked him last night, which they didn’t, he’d say the old MacMillan house looked the best it ever looked now that it stood like an empty shell at the head of the Twin Oaks circle. With its stark white face and those big dark windows it looked like an old man staring out at all the smaller houses. He knew better than to get involved with all the yard party nonsense and potluck dinners. He was wise in his silence and his choice to remain removed from the inner trappings of the lawns committee.
      In the quiet the birds were singing a gentle reminder to pick up the newspaper. It was trashy to leave it past the morning, so he was told. He was sure there were things that were far worse. The crickets chirped in agreement. Soon they’d be joined by the footsteps of that lady who runs, the one with the strong arms and faraway stare. There was the occasional wave just about this time as the sun nestled into the sky. But never anything more. She was after all, not part of all this. For the most part she kept to herself. But where was she this morning?
      He peeled the tacky film from his news before he even brought it in, depositing it in the small silver can marked PLASTIC in the fenced in nook by the side door. Little things like missing that could kick April’s morning off to the kind of start he didn’t have the strength for today. His will only went so far nowadays and he needed every bit. As predicted Pigg was waiting for him when he reached the top of the stairs, chubby hands poised on the side of the crib for leverage as if preparing for a big jump. The child was the happiest he’d ever seen, a bright eyed joy from birth, so much like him it was scary sometimes. He patted his youngest on the head and set a blanket fort fit for royalty up on the floor. It only took a matter of seconds. He’d done this trick every morning for the better part of the tot’s toddling life. And as always, he was met with a squeal of approval and the smack of a wet kiss on the side of his face.
      From the sounds of it April was stirring now, well ahead of schedule. It was going to be that kind of day, where some if not all things were slightly askew.
      “What the hell were you up to last night?”
      The groggy voice came thick and accusing as she sharpened her gaze in the morning light.
      “Up to?” He hated that it always started with an accusation, even now.
      “Trying to burn me in front of all the people that matter.” She moved sluggishly at first but like a locomotive gone wrong built speed and volume as she went on.
      “That make you feel like a big man? Did it feel so good to make me look like a fool?” She bristled past him on the way to the vanity. Even in the company of one she felt the need to dress up. Perhaps she was preparing her battle face. She let out a slicing breath, a pinched blast of air through pursed lips as if she had a pressure valve. This is what she did to calm down sometimes, when the anxiety got the best of her. She did it before an open house or a speech she was about to make. She did it now when she was about to change tack.
      “You embarrassed me, Jackson Pollack.” She accentuated the name for spite. They both knew he hated that, and that she used it as a reminder of all the things he wasn’t. If he were feeling bold he’d remind her of some other things he wasn’t. But he didn’t have the strength today.
       “All that talk about some crazy woman, really? Like you were best friends? What was it you said—?”
      She searched for words but he dare not answer.
      “—connected. That was it. You and some crazy old bat who tried to destroy our neighborhood were connected in the middle of the Meg-O-Mart.”
      Her eyes were wide and in the strange light looked like licking flames consumed her from the inside. They threatened to boil out over her eyelids and take him to the pits.
      “Do you want our neighbors to think you’re on drugs?”
      He definitely didn’t have the strength for this conversation, not today. The kids would be waking up. He needed to make breakfast. He needed to be productive and get things done.
      “Is that what you want?” The words echoed in his ears like tiny explosions.
       The words were automatic.
      “I don’t know what came over me,” he lied. “I shouldn’t have had that last Chardonnay.”
      He put on his most contrite face hoping his false confession would be taken in earnest. Considering she was undoubtedly feeling the consequences of the same indulgence herself, he could pray for lenience just this one time.
      There was a good chance. Would it be better if he could hold his liquor like a seasoned drinker? She wouldn’t want that. And it showed. She smoothed the brush through her hair, making each strand flawless as her face softened. She still looked like she could be in commercials, even this early in the morning.
      “I’m sure the ladies got a kick out of it,” she sniffed. She returned her view to the vanity, opening tubs of cream and jars of lotions. She didn’t notice he had left the room.
      He heard her laugh half to herself, “I still don’t know what you were thinking.”
      That was certain.
      When he approached the old woman that day he was unsure, his voice small like a child’s, tender like a lover’s.
      “Are you all right Mrs. MacMillan?”
      She mouthed the words over and over like a sweet song until he caught her hands.
      They were cold and strong, yet frail. But he felt tiny in her grasp, as if he were the delicate one. She was so intense, alive. She stopped mid song as if seeing him for the first time. The recognition was clear.
      “You think I’m mad?”
      “Mrs. MacMillan,” he nodded gently, “you’re not mad.” He was trying to be kind and in his heart he didn’t believe the old woman was as lost as everyone had made her out to be. He could see it in her eyes.
      “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” He was transported at once if it were possible, sucked into the vortex and spit out the other side blasted straight through space. He was a little boy in a tiny bedroom. On the walls were crayon pictures of fire trucks and magic heroes, flying dragons and posies in a field. He was four years old listening to a sweet voice read the words for the hundredth time. He knew by heart. He knew them even now.
      “How do you know I’m mad?” He prompted taking the lines from Alice in Wonderland as if the past thirty years had been a heartbeat. She made a fine Chesshire cat with those sapphire eyes, they glowed like ice blue embers, especially now that they had found him.
      “You must be,” said the woman, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
      All the more he felt he couldn’t move, Lewis Carroll’s words reverberating in his ears, the woman’s eyes fixed on his face, twin rabbit holes inviting him to take the leap down and down.
      But he caught himself. This time he had to. The welt on the woman’s face had gone from pink to blazing red in the course of seconds as they spoke. From this close he could smell the source of her pain. There was fertilizer on her hands and face, dusted all over her clothes. Whether she could feel it he couldn’t venture a guess.
      He brushed the woman’s cheek just under the angry weal, as he would Pigg’s when the little one bumped an eye or a knee on a sharp table edge. He was gentle in his words hoping he let her know the question was meant without judgment.
      “Mrs. MacMillan, are you all right?”
      She answered not as a frail old madwoman but as the knowing trickster. She started a new song, unlike the one before. It rolled off her tongue in a satisfied purr, and followed in confident time.
      They dared the world to interrupt.
      But he wouldn’t. Instead he left her to the words and that strange inner light.
      He let them fill his head and body and guide him out of the store to the task at hand.
      “What was it you wanted? “
      They radiated from his skin onto the canvas as he painted the old woman’s eyes.

Melissa Palmer’s work has appeared in Best New Writing and the Wilderness House Literary Review, among others. She has been named an honorary Scot by the McStorytellers for her short story “At This Moment,” and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently finishing her book Twin Oaks, where Mr. Pollack and all his cul-de-sac friends reside. She is honored to be working with the Writing Disorder again.

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