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molly gillcrist

New Fiction


by Molly Gillcrist

      Rosa’s wedding is across town in a pioneer chapel by the river and Arden is running late. She’s wearing a fresh pair of blue-tint contacts, and her long legs are decked out in the third pair of panty hose she pulled from the back of the drawer. They have a snag at the knee which threatens to ladder, but their shade of cream matches the flowers in her lavender crepe dress. She grabs her mail from the curbside box and tosses it on the seat of the del Sol. At a stoplight she glances down and sees an envelope from Patrick, her Denver cousin. At the next light, she tears it open and pictures slide onto the seat. Patrick’s note explains that he doesn’t know these faces left among her aunt’s belongings and so is dealing them out. Arden’s share is a few studio portraits taken some time in the 1890s, she guesses. And among them is one she knows well.
      At the chapel, she takes the arm of an usher and is delivered to a pew. She basks for a moment in the coolness until her pupils widen in the dim light and she sees Elena two pews ahead. Beside her is the promised brother. At thirty-three, Elena is a year younger than Arden and has already put two divorces behind her. She refuses to give up on men, however, and is the unofficial matchmaker at the Institute. So far, Arden has succeeded in holding her off.
      “You’re gay,” Elena decided.
      “No.” Arden blushed as she looked up from the microscope. “Soured.” Arden’s reply caused Elena to shake her head and set Arden to wishing she’d said she was. A man in her life would change her entire foundation. She’d be like a house with cracks jarred into it from being hoisted onto a flatbed truck and dispatched to a strange location.
      Only yesterday, Elena had walked into the lab and whispered, in her confidential receptionist’s manner, that her brother Oscar is no longer a mourning widower. He has come through all that and is ready for romance—with Arden. Arden remembers him only as a shape in the hall outside the lab when he stopped by the Institute the day Elena’s car broke down. Elena must have made it all up. Yet, he’s come. An architect. But Oscar? And even from only the shoulders up, other flaws are apparent: a thick neck not used to being ringed by a tie, a jagged scar etched across the lines in the flesh of the jaw, a ponytail, of all things, and streaked with gray above the rubber band.
      Better to watch what’s going on near the altar. Two girls in pink tulle dresses are lighting beribboned candles there. The girl on the right completes her set and starts off the platform with a pivot so sudden a white anemone drops from the crown of her head. She glares at her partner still stretched up on her toes, retrieves the flower, and then both scamper off to the side as notes from a flute steal out of the shadows.
      Guests rise dark against the candlelight and Arden stands with the rest. At the approach of the bride, she turns and is caught in that turn by a flash of light, the click of a shutter, as fixed as a smear of blood on a slide or an image in Patrick’s photos.
      The one she recognized had hung high from a nail meant for some other purpose under attic rafters at her aunt’s house, a room used for storing apples in the winter, a place for Arden to sleep during visits. When she was nine and ten, she slept entire summers there while her parents were separating and she was wondering what better to do with her own life. Her parents launched her alone from Portland over the Cascades, and when she landed in Denver, after crossing even higher peaks, she found herself in harm’s way there as well.
      She first noticed the picture her tenth summer. Soothed by a breeze over her sunburned arms and face, she was lying awake in the lingering sweet odor of apples, watching curtain shadows ripple along the moonlit walls.
      What seemed that night to be the gleam of a mirror was, Arden saw from her perch on the footrail the next morning, the glass-covered face of a young woman staring at her. It was the face of a confident belle: dark hair pulled up in a bun, full lips charming into a smile. But authority glinted in the deep-set eyes, and the lift to the chin above the lace-trimmed throat projected an arrogant dare. Do likewise, the face commanded. Of course. The face gave no option. But what? Put on the airs of a princess and have boys fall at your feet? Stupid. The belle assured her it was not. Arden had been dismayed. She considered her freckles, her limp red hair, her gangly legs, the fact that though she played ball and raced bikes with boys and sometimes won, boys terrified her with their smirks and codes. She wanted them beyond reach, well away. And she had no hope at all of ordering or charming them into a saluting disciplined row as she sailed past.
      Arden wonders now why she let “Belle” work on her while the summers went by. She waited nearly five years to blurt out her question and got an answer through a shower from the garden hose. “Beats me. A Hamilton cousin?” said her aunt while spraying aphids off the spindle tree. “Might be the one who died in childbirth.”
      So dead is what boys could get you, Arden thought that day as she dodged cascading aphids. So. The dancing lessons, the subscription to Seventeen, the come-on smile and toss of her head in front of the closet mirror had all been a waste. From now on she’d look farther ahead, see where a path might lead before she put one foot on it—before she stuck out the tip of a toe. And she was certainly not going to spend her fall Saturdays at charm school. She’d take that microbe class at the science museum instead.
      Seated again in the pew, watching the joined hands of the couple, Arden sighs. Asking sooner wouldn’t have made a difference, she knows. Belle’s face had told the instant she saw it, had forced her to go against her grain, then sent her careening back, hit her again when it slid from the envelope. And now that face waits on the passenger’s seat like a stem cell, like those stem cells from Billy Roy’s brother in the lab freezer, ready to proliferate.
      She looks at her watch. Back at the Institute, in Room 410, the second from last in the north-wing hall, the one with the gleaming door handle, Billy Roy should be sleeping now; a flush might have crept onto his cheeks. With Rosa out for her wedding and two others on vacation, Arden had been forced from the lab to prepare Billy Roy’s transfusion herself this morning, her first in two years. But she hadn’t forgotten the routine. She’d taken the count of his white cells—42,000, nearly five times that patrolling her own body—and recorded it, had checked the label and match code on his brother’s donation the obligatory three times before assembling the gear on the metal cart. What she hadn’t accounted for while working with mice and pipettes and the centrifuge was the human presence, the impact of a small thin boy nearly as pale as his blanket.
      He blinked and looked out toward the rain-splattered window when she came in to take the sample. “Where’s Rosa?”
      “Getting ready for her wedding.”
      “I know.”
      “Hold still.”
      “Rosa tells stories.”
      Stories. She glanced down at his forearms where hemorrhages were sprinkled like wine-colored stars across the white field of his skin. “Tell you what. I’ll think of one before I come back.”
      But she hadn’t settled on a story by the time she returned with the cart. Jack and the Beanstalk? Most probably, Billy Roy would never climb. Hans Brinker? He was plucky, but he might never skate. Paul Bunyan? He’d be lucky to ever walk through a forest.
      When she opened the door, his head was still turned toward the window, but he spoke with a resolute voice. “When I was little, the teacher taught us a song. About gumdrops.”
      “And raindrops.”
      “Oh! And lemon drops?” She was saved. “I know it too!” He turned toward her with the glimmer of a smile. “Shut your eyes and let’s sing:
                   If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops,
                  Oh, what a world it would be!
                  I’d stand outside with my mouth open wide,
                  That’s the weather for me, oh baby.
                  I wouldn’t care if the sun would never shine.
                  I’d keep on wishing for raindrops all the time.
                  If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops,
                  Oh, what a world it would be!”
      He lay quietly during the entire transfusion, sometimes singing along with her, mostly not, and nodding, “Again,” each time she finished. Then, before the last drops slipped down the tube, she heard him say, “That’s enough.”
      Arden feels her eyes water, sees a tear splash onto a flower in her lavender dress. With regret, with shame, she realizes that the tear is not for Billy Roy but for herself, that this morning was the first time ever she’d used her voice as a soothing caress.
      She lifts her neck, willing the tears back from the rims of her eyes. There. She relaxes. But another tear falls. She hadn’t seen that coming.
      And Billy Roy hadn’t seen what was coming to him. “Great day,” his mother might have said as she passed his door late one Saturday morning and saw him still reading in bed. Again. “You going to ride bikes with Sam?” She might have paused a moment, registering the sudden tightness at the back of her throat.
      “That due tomorrow?” his father might have said Sunday night, pointing toward Billy Roy’s unfinished report on Kentucky. Billy Roy might have sighed, put his head down on the kitchen table. His father might have stood there a moment, pondering what knowledge made him not insist. He would have returned later, and finding Billy Roy asleep at the table, would have picked him up to carry to bed, would have felt the lump under his armpit, would have made an appointment first thing in the morning.
      And Belle lying disarrayed and bewildered on blood-soaked sheets. About her she would have seen the reading table where a vase brimming with pink roses stood next to the glass-shaded lamp, the carved oak cornice spanning the east window above the fall of blue damask, the wreathed urn design stamped onto the blue-flocked wallpaper. In the midst of these mute trappings of her life, did she hear a baby’s fading cry?
      And if she did, thinks Arden, did she find it all a waste? Or, was it possible, could it have been that she died still proud, knowing full well she’d done it, that she’d accomplished the point of her life? Could that have been her true dare after all—simply for Arden to keep to her own life’s purpose, to let it unfold, no matter what?
      She looks up at the sound of clapping. Rosa and her new husband have kissed and are facing the applause of their guests. Then they stride up the aisle arm in arm. And in the wake of the wedding party, guests are being released by rows. Elena and Oscar are standing, and Arden keeps her gaze carefully averted from their faces. But then she notices Oscar’s hand, simply his hand resting on the curved edge of the pew while he waits his turn to exit. Is it the same hand that wrenched the wheel when he saw the truck veer, the hand that sent him and his wife into the abutment? How strong it looks: firm tanned skin sheathing the taper of delicate bones. How vulnerable. How dear.

After graduating magna cum laude from Duke with a BA in English, Molly received her MA from the University of Virginia in speech pathology and audiology and then worked in that area doing evaluation and treatment at Kennedy Memorial Hospital in a Boston suburb. She subsequently worked in a public school system in the Portland, Oregon, area as a speech/language specialist and developed ESL programs for the district. Present volunteer work in Portland is through Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and Start Making A Reader Today. In 1987 and 1988, she received the Teacher as Writer Prize. Her writing has been published in apt, The Oregonian, and Oregon English Journal.

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