The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by Melissa Palmer

       The entrance to Twin Oaks was guarded by the two eponymous giants. They flanked its wrought iron gates with an air of certain permanence though the neighborhood smelled of fresh paint and newly laid sod. And despite the hint of belonging that clung to the summer breeze, they acted more like outsiders, forbidden lovers ousted from the circle within, branches stretched from either side of the street with yearning fingertips that would never touch.
      Mrs. MacMillan loved those trees. They served as dutiful reminders every time she returned home that someone would be there waiting, even if it was a pair of deciduous sentries. The trips to the big warehouse had become more frequent than she would like to admit now that the warm weather had kicked in full swing. But they were a necessary evil, especially here in Twin Oaks.
      She turned left hard into the entryway and immediately felt her hands relax just a touch. The little hamlet had all the shape and good luck of a horseshoe turned on its side and she settled a little knowing that she was back where she was meant to be. One turn removed her from the harshness of the world she briefly visited for the base needs: a jug of milk, a can of coffee, three bags of diatomaceous earth. Hers was a world of thick emerald greenery and sweet delicious smells, a tiny universe where doors were left open and no one cared that there were no fences to block the view into a neighbor’s yard. There was chubby Mrs. Womack walking the golden retriever she swore was as smart as she was and as far as Mrs. MacMillan was concerned, the matron was not that far off. Her dog and she had the same puzzled look as she gave a wobbly and hesitant hello. As if she didn’t recognize Mrs. MacMillan’s van?
      The woman kept busy, that was for sure. Her home, the Grandview, was the largest in the whole lot visible even from outside the gates , standing at the head of what looked like a giant beetle, a circle of glorious homes built to suit the better needs of the best suited to fill the prime estates that were Twin Oaks. Hers was the flagship, the masterpiece, the mother of all the homes. It was mirrored by none but the plantations of yore, wrapped in an old-fashioned lemonade drinking porch, with rocking chairs and oversized hanging plants bursting from their pots. It was a vision in white, two large picture windows on the second floor set off in ebony panels lacquered dark to match the double door that marked the entryway. It was simple in its elegance, just like Mrs. MacMillan.
      It was only a five minute trip to the megastore at the shopping complex but she had gone on three separate trips just today. Hers was the biggest and oldest in the crop of homes that had sprouted within the past five years. The upkeep was exhausting but none so much exhausting as the inescapable fallout that follows a house of that caliber showing any sign of disrepair, not to mention the shame. That kind of disgrace would be insufferable and she wouldn’t have it.
      Three years ago the homeowner’s association, then a burgeoning group of well-doers had honored her for the second year in a row for the assorted flowers that grew in her garden out back. It was a repeat of the inaugural year. They had been so good they’d named her twice, Best Blooms. And she had worn that blue ribbon with honor, nodding humbly at the well wishers who whispered about the scarlet beauties that graced the small Shangri-La she engineered off the back porch, the bravest of which who asked to sit there amongst the wonders that defied the laws of nature.
      She pulled her packages out of the car and waved absently to the youngish mom of two from down the street who ran up and out of the neighborhood at least twice a week. She didn’t know her name but admired her begonias and taste in social etiquette. She was not part of the association that insulted and ignored. She was also new enough to the neighborhood to avoid silent judgment and whispered critiques. She didn’t look as she passed in front of the empty space that used to be Mrs. MacMillan’s garden, not once for what she was too new to remember and not twice for a wonder she couldn’t forget.
      Mrs. Granger would be having tea by now. The faint scent of cinnamon toast came wafting from the house to the right. It was the Victorian Hempstead, not as large as Mrs. MacMillan’s but a handsome home, ornately detailed with a nod to the craftsmanship of times gone by, an ode to the decade the woman was born. She had no idea how old Granger was, a woman of diction and stature who had no first name. She carried herself with grace and the air of someone worthy. But her wizened face and paper hands betrayed her to all witnesses. Her house did not show the same wear as her body or disappearing lips, her teeth that seemed unnaturally long, the slight hump she tried to hide under designer suits and sweaters from across the pond. She spoke with the subtle confidence of one who knew she would be queen someday, and the patience of a lady who could wait forever if she had to for her ascent to the crown.
      She said this morning smiling into Mrs. MacMillan’s yard, “Perhaps this will be your year,” accented syllables through the whitewashed planks behind her shriveled lips.
      That had sent the younger of the women out the first time for three bags of a mix that was certified organic and a morning spent tilling the soil with a sprinkling of tepid water. There were no gardeners or husband for Mrs. MacMillan to speak of. It was just her, the house and the soft earth just out back.
      She fixed herself a snack and brewed a pot of coffee out of habit to take the edge off after settling down her third batch of bags from the last trip out.
      The Pollack’s to the left had been grilling just after she’d finished up the last of the organic bags. They didn’t say much. They ate quietly snubbing her barren patch, wrangling their 2.4 catalog children back into their Gabled Homestead, a newer and smaller model on the lot that made up for what it lacked in space with gaud and high tech construction. Much like the Pollack’s, the Gabled Homestead lacked panache and held for Mrs. MacMillan zero interest.
      She washed the sticky, fetid mess from her hands before her second trip to the megamart, this time for lye and a roll of thick plastic to deal with pests who might interfere with her plans. She would cover every angle, account for every variable. As her neighbor had said, this would be her year.
      She was patting down the dark patch just in front the bench meant for admiring what was there when the young couple from the far end of the U had walked past again, a ritual the newlyweds shared, looping up and down the curl of their new neighborhood in attempts to master their new surroundings, as if the learning curve here was one of any actual difficulty. They were getting used to things, to each other. She could only assume they were from the way their measured steps matched in rhythm and how the pace was punctuated by inward turns and hopeful glances, the kind of hope that only comes with youth and love still fresh. They lived in the Newstead, a relatively tiny model, relegated to the outermost stretch of the Twin Oaks’ circle. But they kept their lawn manicured and their paint neat. Even the smallest house in the circle was fit to sit on the cover of a greeting card, just as the couple was. They made a handsome picture together and from the looks of their house, they were a lot like the walk they took, headed in the right direction.
      She looked up to give them a courteous wave and they returned the pleasantries although their faces looked quizzical. They had walked through the neighborhood enough times to hear the condemnations of the homeowner’s association. They were wondering why there were no shrubs or tomatoes, but mostly they were demanding in that one unguarded moment a view something spectacular, the likes of which they wouldn’t forget. They were disappointed in her inability to deliver. She was sure by the way the young missus held to her husband’s elbow just as they walked away and how she looked back over her shoulder when they thought they were out of sight. That kind of judgment from one so young, she wouldn’t have it.
      That’s when the last trip had become so necessary. A touch of diatomaceous earth here and there would bring life where she needed it most.
      Her back and hands ached. There were streaks of white on her dark culottes and smears of blackish brown on her pale skin. Leaves and twigs stuck out from her grayish white bun that now sat sidesaddle and loose on her damp head. She was a camouflaged warrior, a strategic solider with an ache inside that rumbled her from within. It was almost time for a late dinner by the time she finished it all, the sun just losing itself beyond the horizon, only a slight glimmer of blush left on the fat cheek of the sky. Mrs. Womack was out with the genius dog for one last lap through town. She held a wad of plastic bags in the free hand she used to wave. How the woman could look so confused at every given moment was beyond Mrs. MacMillan. At heart she didn’t care enough to give it any more thought. She had bigger things on which she needed to focus every shred of thought.
      She wasn’t interested in television or music. The day had sucked her dry. As soon as her dinner settled she was curled up in bed, resting, planning for tomorrow morning when there had to be a sign of life. But any time her mind faded into the sweet blackness that was sleep, any time that a small blossom of color pushed its way up from the dark, she was interrupted. It wasn’t by the splashing of the Pollack children swimming into the late hours of evening. It wasn’t the genius dog howling at an unknown emissary. It was something else, throbbing in her head, a pulse that pulled her up into consciousness and away from her bed. She left the blankets slack, not bothering to smooth them out before taking leave, an act that would normally weigh on her heavily like an old secret. But this was too important. It was so much more. She simply would not have it any longer.
      Under a cloudless sky the woman began to dig. On her hands and knees without the aid of a shovel or spade she sunk her fingers into the moist dark earth and pulled away at the smooth surface so long without blemish or growth. It came up in clumps that sailed through the air. Others settled on her back like sweets on a coffee table. It was cool in the moonlight but her nightgown began to stick and clutch where it hung in the mixture of damp earth and sweat. There was no noise she could hear, only the throbbing that had awoken her from sleep and the labored sounds of her own breath as she dug in and dug deeper using hands and elbows, feet and knees. She pushed with her arms in small circles expelling handfuls of ground, disrupting nothing in the night but a few earthworm homes. She was swimming in it now, silent and determined.
      The sky had gone from pitch to gray when she disappeared down into the hole. It was late enough for birds to just begin singing but not early enough for the paperboy to come wheeling by with his news. Neither the birds nor the paperboy heard the sharp sound of nails worked to bone. No one got to see how her face lit up when she knew she had finished and emerged with what she’d found.
      They were brilliant in the moonlight, exactly as she’d remembered. She’d extracted them from deep in the earth where they’d been waiting, placed there more out of fear than necessity, the looming threat of critters and prying little hands guiding her every move. The first was in perfect condition, so round and defined, still white and firm to the touch. Some were long and slender, slightly worn and yellowed with time. They looked as though they might fall apart, but all were intact as she’d secretly hoped. Held in the pockets there where she’d dug was the promise of a life the yard had not seen.
      When she woke it was later than she’d slept in years but she’d earned that rest with what she’d done. So much of her had gone into the prospect of this moment. She had pulled off the antique lace nightgown for something more suitable and preened for a second or two longer than usual. She wanted to be fresh. She bounded downstairs with youthful steps that challenged her age. Her footfalls were tentative leaving the house, a child’s tiptoe to the Christmas tree. Though it was late, the dew was still sticking to blades of grass in tiny diamond dots that tickled her ankles and cooled the pads of her feet as she entered the yard. The day was warmer than expected but this was not surprising. It was the scent that was unmistakably new. Mrs. MacMillan’s breath caught in her throat, swept away by the sweet fragrant smell of summer luscious roses and honey dipped blossoms, fat with dew. Their ripe petals were open and rose to the sky awaiting the sun’s kiss. They grew tall and full climbing the sides of the bench, underneath it, around it in bright paralyzing blues and electrifying oranges, deep dark fuchsias and magenta dotted with tiny buds of purple, flowers she didn’t remember planting, blooms she’d never seen before. And the smell, it was too much to take in.
      But in the center of it all was her gem, the treasure for which she’d toiled without the help of a gardener or son; no other set of hands was there to help her extricate the marvel that would surely bring the association to her door. Amid the bright white Calla Lily, plump and flirtatious, the miraculous rainbow that burst around the bench like a Technicolor frame comprised solely of fireworks, sat the wonder that made everything so.
      It was almost difficult to make it out, the flora overtaking the bench like ants on a dropped candy, so that it lost the stone look completely, instead becoming a plush, multicolored sofa bursting with light, interrupted only at its center where the figure rested. Two pockets sat in a canvas of dazzling white, only now instead of dark and emptiness they were overflowing with turquoise sweet peas. A hat sat slightly askew atop the shiny globe that had maintained its bleached white complexion among the tendrils of cosmos and thick leafy green, a discovery that took Mrs. MacMillan’s heart soaring. There were no whitewashed planks, only two neat rows of ivory smiling on the accomplishment, on the good morning. One slender hand was raised as if to say so.
      His suit looked so good. The whole neighborhood looked good.
      Bees buzzed, birds chirped and the sweet smell of her garden drowned out Mrs. Granger’s midmorning tea.
      From here the woman could see all the way out of Twin Oaks. She could see the cars approaching all the way from the road, her favorite trees outside the gates looking in, and her own neighbors as they approached her proud site. Some came on foot, pointing and staring. There were children on bicycles, perhaps the Pollack’s children or of the lady who ran. Others drove slowly from further down the U.
      Mrs. MacMillan stood in front of the thick luxurious blooms and the treasure she unearthed, waving exuberantly to anyone and everyone who came past.
       Mrs. Womack came closest with her genius retriever. She stood with her mouth hanging wide just as the dog. They both took in the wonder, finally looking as if they understood.

Melissa Palmer was a teaching fellow at Seton Hall University, where she started her publication career with academic works and dramatic studies, assisting Dr. Angela Jane Weisl on the book Constructions of Widowhood and Virginity in the Middle Ages and on the paper “Let Us Inne: Performing the Second Shepherd’s Play” delivered at the 35th International Medieval Congress .While at the university she continued to follow her passion for poetry and creative writing publishing multiple works in Chavez, the university’s literary magazine, and on several online outlets in small contests and writers groups. During those years she published several poems and short pieces, one of which was her claim to fame for subsequent years, a haiku about Bea Arthur honored by Spaceghost himself on Spaceghost Coast to Coast. She was part of a spoken word poetry group during those years but found slam not to be her thing. She knew even then that she was an awkward and silly person.

She taught at several private institutions post Masters in order to subsidize writing her first novel Amelia’s Attic, a mercenary stab at commercial Chick Lit. She found that also, not to be her thing though she did have a view requests for full reads on the project. After an unfortunate turn of events, she found herself writing at the popular paper in Cape May County where she wrote stories on budgets and murders, rapes and fires. Though that also was not her thing, what she did find completely wonderful there was the offer to write gaming and humor columns during her tenure as the Wildwood reporter. It was then that she picked up on the creative writing, becoming an honored poet of the Rogue Scholars Collective with “Brueghel” and “In the Frame,” and when she wrote “Mom’s Song” and “Things I forgot to tell you,” two pieces featured in Kiss Me Goodnight: Stories and Poems by Women Who Were Girls When Their Mother’s Died. She is currently working on several companion pieces to “Mrs. MacMillan’s Garden” exploring the lives of the other members of the twin oaks community.

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