Tuesday, April 4, 2017

#SOL17: Facing West: A Short Story

An attempt at a short story.
Petals & Glass (M.A. Reilly. Dublin, 2009)
            Maggie's heart beats forty times per minute.
            "Not seventy-two beats like it's suppose to. I think I'm almost," her ma's voice thins to a shallow breath.
            "Ma? Dead?"
            "The doctor's changing her prescription."
            "Ma, what do you mean by dead?" asks Siobhan?
            Maggie looks at her daughter and then returns to peeling a carrot as Siobahn’s Da peels a potato. "The doctor says cardizem slows the heart. I've been taking that for almost ten years now."
            "Time slows the heart, Maggie," states Paul.
            "Ma, sit down and pass me the peeler."

            In morning, the light does not--cannot find the kitchen in this house.  The western side is neatly tucked beneath the branches of the only remaining tree.  When Seth first came with her to visit her family, he remarked about the paved front yard.
            "Looks like Brooklyn," he said, nudging Siobhan with his hand. 
            "My Da wanted to make sure there would always be enough parking."
            "Well, he sure guaranteed that."
            "I know, we were all pretty shocked. There used to be a large oval rock garden in the front with pachysandra so thick it was difficult to walk through."
             "Not enough room to park a car out there, Maggie," he had explained to his wife after she arrived home to find the rock garden gone.  "The pavers will be here next Tuesday."
            "So, he had the whole front yard paved?"
            "Well, not completely," answered Siobhan as she pointed to the large rectangle. "He put in that flower box to try to keep the country flavor and he kept a tree."

           "Ma, did the doctor say what he's going to do?"
            "Well, he wants to try me on a different..."
            "He said to start taking bena-something. He gave us some samples until we receive a supply from the pharmacy."
            "Oh, so you've started then."
            "Well, just this morning."
            "Do you feel any different?  Peppier?"
            "Siobhan, she took the first pill a couple hours ago."
            "Actually." Maggie picks up the peeler and starts in on another carrot. "Well it's difficult to say."
            In this room tucked beneath the shelter of the tree's long branches, words are cloaks worn against strong winds, threatening storms that never seemed to materialize. Has it always been this way, Siobhan wonders?

            "Ma, what exactly are you making that you need this many carrots and potatoes?"
            "Just a summer casserole. Your brother's coming up from the city tonight. Would you and Seth like to join us? Steven's coming over too." Maggie has taken out two onions and is slowly peeling one.
            "Oh, thanks, ma but we have plans for tonight."
            "Did I tell you that we went to Mr. Waller's funeral last Tuesday?"
            "Who was Mr. Waller?"
            "Oh you remember Charlie," Paul says as he rinses a colander full of potatoes in the sink.
            "He was business associate of your Da's."
            "I don't think I met him."
            "Well you certainly won't now, " says Paul. "They put him in the ground on Tuesday."

            Siobhan's father had retired some fifteen years earlier at the age of 62.  At his retirement cocktail party, he refused to have a sit down dinner, saying that he always found those affairs to be a bit stuffy; there were well over 400 people in attendance.  He was a man who was well liked—who knew perhaps that beneath being well liked was a type of commitment to living.   One thing for certain, he knew how and allowed himself to be committed to life.  Maggie was somehow different. 
            All of her family had passed, with the exception of Siobhan, her brothers and father. One night shortly after aunt Edna was buried, Maggie's last living sister, Siobhan awoke sweaty and disturbed from a dream.  She woke Seth.
            "I dreamed my ma was standing at the opening of a large field.  In front of her were her brothers and sisters.  There were my uncles.  Even her baby sister lost at the age of two was there, along with my grandparents.  What's strange is that they were all wearing baseball caps."
            "Baseball caps?"
            "Seth, it isn't funny.  It was terrifying.  They were calling to her to come into the field. To come play for them."
            "Your ma's going to play outfield for her dead family?"
            "Seth, I think she's going to go away."
            "We all are."
            "Well, we're going to Alaska," Paul says as he finishes rinsing the potatoes. He is standing at the sink; his back is to Siobhan and her mother.
            Maggie hands Siobhan another carrot.  "The last one, promise."
            "When are you going?"
            "We're going in August. August 21 to be exact.  Going up to Alaska.  We'll see some of the country before we leave it," Paul says this as he winks at Maggie placing the colander on the table. 
            "Siobhan, do you and Seth have luggage?"
            "Does it have wheels?" asks Paul.
            "I don't recall wheels. I'll have to check with Seth."
            "Well I told your father, we're too old to be lugging luggage around Alaska." Maggie reties the bag of carrots.
            "Why don't you go out and buy some?"
            "No point in that at this time," says Paul emphatically. He and Maggie both laugh.
            "We won't get our money's worth," explains Maggie.
            "Maybe Patrick has some or Steven."
            "Oh, Paul remember to ask them tonight."
            Maggie puts away the bag of carrots. She moves across the room and sits down opposite of Siobhan.
            "Know what your dog did yesterday?" she asks.
            "Well, Seth told me he knocked over a glass."
            "Knocked over a glass? Is that how he explained it? Well in he runs."
            "Who? "­­­­­­­­
            "Your dog, Harry. Oh Siobhan honestly, between you and your father I never get to tell a story."
            "Okay, Ma, go on, I'm just teasing."
            "Well the girls and I are set up for our Tuesday afternoon cards and your Da's out back reading, when in through the door comes Harry bounding across the living room. In one move he knocks over Sheila's drink and then jumps up on poor Kitty O'Sullivan.  Thank God, he got her on her good side."
            "Her good side?"
            "Yes, her good side. Kitty was in a car accident. She was driving and she just blacked out at the wheel."
            "Totaled the car," Paul adds, now sitting at the table with his wife and daughter.
            "It was a bad accident. Hand me that casserole dish on the counter."
            "She got out of it with just a bit of nerve damage affecting her left side. I say she was lucky," says Paul.
            Siobhan hands her mother the dish and stands leaning against the sink.
            "Well anyway Harry got her on the right side and without missing a beat he's up and racing through the house when I guess he sees your father out back." Maggie motions to Paul to put the cubed potatoes into the casserole dish.
            "You know me and Harry."
            "Well, Seth is calling him, running after him—but Harry's paying him no mind.  Wham! He runs right through the screen door. Finally Seth caught up with him, and there he sat right next to your Da under the umbrella. Sitting like kings, the two of them, just like nothing happened." Maggie says as she finishes assembling the casserole.
            "Ah, Harry and I are kings.  It's just that we've been keeping it a secret," says Paul as he picks up The Daily News. "If you want me, I'll be on the throne."

            Childe Harold, Harry for short, was Siobhan and Seth's one-year-old, eighty pound golden retriever. In considering children, they had first decided to get a dog. 
            "Let's see how we do with a dog," offered Siobhan.
            Well, Seth wore a camera around his neck for the first year of Harry's life and Siobhan had loaded up her phone with dozens of pictures of Harry. 
            "Here he's sitting.  Oh look, in this one he's running to get a stick." Such was the commentary that accompanied the photos of Harry that Siobhan had taken to showing friends, family, and even strangers.  Once after being stopped for speeding, Siobhan had handed her collection of photographs chronicling all of Harry's important and less important moments—Harry's arrival, Harry at one month, Harry at the beach, puppy school graduation, Harry's big operation, Harry's first birthday—to the police officer, while she hunted through the glove compartment to find her registration and insurance card.
            "Did you get a ticket?" asked Seth.
            "No. He even wanted the name of the breeder.  He especially liked the photo of Harry chewing on the rubber George Bush doll."
            Harry had solidified Siobhan and Seth's marriage.  Whereas each might have thought in an angry moment of leaving, as each had done in perviously, now there was the question of Harry. 

            "Siobhan, we're going to sit out front. Why don't you use that glass and pour yourself an iced tea and join us." Siobhan realizes that she has been standing at the sink, drying and redrying a glass for the last ten minutes.
            Paul always puttered around the garden, pulling up a weed, planting a new type of flower. Mostly he planted annuals. The garden this year was not thematic as it had been the previous year. Most years Paul liked to organize the garden around a general theme.  One year he had planted only orange and blue flowers, creating a floral replica of the Met's logo.  Last year, to the chagrin of Maggie, he replicated the American flag.
            "What no flag this year Da?" asks Siobhan as she comes outside.
            "Thought we'd be a bit more conservative," he says, setting out a folding chair beside Maggie for Siobhan.
            "I really like this year's garden," adds Maggie.
            Last spring while driving her father to a Home Depot, they passed an arrangement of flowers in front of a town hall. 
            "Just look at that," he yelled startling her. 
            She slowed down quick enough to see the spread of red and white petunias and violet pansies.
            "It's the flag, by golly.  Except they got the wrong shade in there. They need a blue flower, not the violet.  Siobhan, what's a good blue flower?"
            "Da, you're not gonna try that at home are you?"
            "Sure, your mother would just love it."
            Siobhan's mother didn't just love it.
            "Ma, why don't you tell him? After all you live here too."
            "It's fifty years since he fought in the war.  He's feeling lately a little patriotic. I don't want to squelch that."
            It had been some time since Siobhan's father had felt patriotic. What with eight years of Bush and all of that Nixon business. Years earlier, when Siobhan's older brother, Steven was just a little boy, he and his Da were at Rockefeller Center. Vice President Richard Nixon was visiting too.  When the vice president extended his hand to shake Steven's, his Da had instinctively pulled his son's hand away, leaving the Nixon standing there momentarily at a loss.  Paul ushered his son away. The crowd surged forward, quickly closing the brief vacancy their leaving had made.
            "Never did trust that man ever since he ran that dirty campaign in California," he would later remark to Maggie.
            "So Da, why the cornflowers?"
            "Well your mother likes them."
            "Did I say that?"
            "You most certainly did. In fact right here last year."
            Maggie looks quizzically at Paul.
            "We sat right in these chairs, looking at the garden. And you said, 'Paul, next year put in cornflowers where you got the violets.' I asked you if you hated the flag and you said hate was a bit strong."
            "Oh, I never did."
            "Yes you did," Paul answers a bit quickly, a bit defensively.
            "Da, do you miss your flag?"
            "Oh, Siobhan stop baiting him."
            In Siobhan's home growing up, she never recalled seeing her parent's fight. 
            "It was quiet," she explained to Seth late one evening after he had screamed and yelled and she had systematically broken the stems off his grandmother's crystal glasses. The loudness of their fighting had surprised her. "We didn't yell like you did at your home."
            In Seth's house, loudness was a way of being. 
            "My father would holler downstairs and my mother would match him beat for beat.  Look Siobhan, we just get it out."
            For Siobhan, loudness meant flight.  She feared the angry reverberations, believing that if she said how she felt aloud and worse loudly—then surely Seth would leave.  In her first marriage, Siobhan had practiced the art of quiet manipulation and it hadn't been all that effective.  She and John's marriage had been over for at least nine of the ten years they were officially married. Neither had the guts to call it quits. Finally she did.  She left him in the house, rented a condo and thought that a change of venue and a divorce decree would afford her a fresh start.  She didn't know then that everything she brought to her first marriage she would bring to her second. Siobhan fought hard to stop believing most speech could irrevocably break a marriage. Recently, she considered that when she failed to talk, she felt hollow. If nothing else she told her analyst, talking saved the few remaining pieces of crystal.
            Paul has gotten up and is now working in the garden, using the trowel to dig out some weeds. "Gotta stay on top of them, Siobhan. They'll take over you're garden if you let them."
            "Never your garden, Da."       
            "Siobhan, are you sure you and Seth can't come for dinner tonight?"
            "Ma, we can't. I have Dr. B. late this afternoon. I won't be back until after seven."
            "Siobhan, are you still seeing him?" Maggie's voice is low, as if she doesn’t want Paul to hear what she is saying.           
            "Yes, Ma, every Tuesday and Thursday at 5:15."
            "I don't understand it," says Maggie. "No one in our family has ever needed professional well, that sort of help."
            "And for so long.  I mean Siobhan what could you possibly have to talk about. And to a stranger."
            "Ma after a decade, he's not a stranger."
            "Siobhan, is he Catholic?"
            "No. I'm pretty sure Dr. Berkowitz is Jewish."
            "He's not even of your faith."
            "What faith?"
            "Oh, go ahead and be flippant, but you will always be Catholic. At least find a Catholic doctor. Why all you need is to love Seth.  Look at your Da and me. We've done well by each other."     
            Lately, Siobhan had been wondering about love.  Next June her parents would be married fifty years.
            "Ma, next year you'll celebrate your golden or is it diamond anniversary?" Siobhan brushes away a fly that has landed on her leg.
            "Fifty years is golden.  Diamond is seventy-five.  With God's will we'll see it."
            "Well not if I trade you in for to twenty-five year-olds," Paul hollers across the garden.
            "Two twenty-five year-olds would kill you, Paul."  
            "We picked out burial plots last week," Maggie tells her daughter and then brings the glass of iced tea to her lips. The sun has made its way to the top of the house.  It's nearing lunchtime.
            Siobhan sits still, listens, thinks how loudly her mother is now speaking, how the ice cubes in her glass have dissolved so much that they now float, like little life boats on top of the drink.
            "We got four lots.  Two for us and one for each of your brothers."
            "Yep, we'll be planted right beneath a tree on a hill facing west.  Got to face west, Siobhan," says Paul.
            "You got four?"
            "Oh." Siobhan studies her drink as if something in it might save her from breaking inside.

            Later after Siobhan yells and snipes at Seth for being Seth, for taking out the garbage, for not taking out the garbage, she'll tell him about the burial plots.
            "It's just stupid. I'm jealous about who gets to be buried where."
            "I guess they thought that you and I would be buried together," Seth offers.
            "I know. It's just that no one asked.  No one even bothered to inquire."
            "Siobhan, what would you have liked them to say?"
            "God, I don't know. You sound like a therapist."
            "Well, then what do you want from them?"
            "I guess I wouldn't have even wanted to hear the conversation, let alone have it.  But Seth, it's been like this for so long. I don't know if it's just the Irish, but Christ, the sons are so prized."
            "Siobhan, they aren't trying to hurt you."
            "They never try, but it still hurts. Seth, I don't want them to die.  You should see them; they're so old lately.  I see it every time my ma gets up. It's like death creeps into her steps, slowing her down, making her all creaky. Even my Da.  Did you notice his hair? It seems to be thinning."
            "I want to know what I'm going to do when they die."
            "You want a road map?"
            "They're going to Seth." Siobhan turns away from Seth. Her back now faces him.  Harry comes running into the room to investigate. He comes right up to Siobhan and starts licking her hands.  Harry is an emotional barometer. "What do you do when you're feeling so lost?"   
            "Sometimes I shake my fist at God and say come here. Show me the way."
            "Does it help?"
            "At best, I end up making an obscene gesture."
            "You mean the skies don't part?"
            "Nope. Not a fucking thing happens, babe."

            Siobhan plays with ice in her glass. She notices how quickly the ice melts if she uses her finger to hold it against the rim of the glass.
            "So, Da why should we, I mean why should you lie facing west?"
            "An Indian ritual, Siobhan. I would have thought you'd know that."
            "But we're not Indians."
            "Doesn't mean that you can't borrow a good idea,” says Paul as he walks towards the front of the house. "Damn ants. Can't put the feeder anywhere without them getting into it."
            Her Da had placed various types of bird feeders around the property to attract songbirds and especially hummingbirds.
            "The ants like the sugar water," Maggie explains, pointing to the slim little feeder hanging suspended from the front gutter. Paul is already at the feeder and has begun to disassemble it.
            "These damn ants. They climb up and then go through the opening here to get to the water.  Except they fall in drown. Clunk up the works."
            "What are you going to do?" asks Siobhan.
            "I've moved the thing a couple of times.  It doesn't seem to make much difference. They keep finding ways to get into it. Not much I can do, except clean it out every now and then. I'm going in to get a hanger."
            Siobhan and her ma sit, side-by-side, volley conversation back and forth. Sunlight falls evenly across both sides of the house, as if the roof might be an equator.
            "Oh, it's nice to watch the birds," offers Maggie.
            "I know. They're colorful." 
            "Your Da and I sit here most afternoons and we wait for the hummingbirds.  I just love how they hover over the feeder." 
            "They beat their wings an amazing amount of times."
            Siobhan watches as Maggie gets up to go back into the house, back into the kitchen.  "Are you staying for lunch?"
            "Well, I have some things to do, but sure. Do you need help?"
            "No, I'll call you when it's ready."

             Siobhan can feel the heat from the pavement through the thin soles of her espadrilles. She has some errands downtown to run and a report to generate for work.  Yet, she is reluctant to get on with it. Just this morning she had complained to Seth about the amount of work facing her.
            "Write a list of the things you have to do.  Put it in order and then work through it."
            "I don't work like that."
            "That might be part of the problem."
            Well Siobhan had made a list and then she tucked it into her pocketbook and left the house, but instead of going to the A&P as she had planned, she went to her parents' home. And here it was nearing noon and she hadn't accomplished anything on the list.
            Paul comes back outside and works the end of coat hanger into the feeder pushing out the clogged ants. He refills the feeder and hangs it back on the gutter.  Siobhan watches as her Da finishes rolling up the weeds in a piece of newspaper. She thinks that she should beg off lunch and get on with her list.
            "I'm going to wash up. I'll see you inside."
            "Okay, " she answers.

            There is a certain stillness that comes at noon on late spring days, thinks Siobhan.  No birds. No sound. The neighborhood children are at school and their parents have gone to work. It is on such days, she imagines, that one might slip between the folds and disappear not to be seen again, like an envelope mistakenly slipped beneath the wrong door, never to be found.  In such a space it feels as if the entire universe has inhaled. Yet, this is a deceptive pause; for nothing waits.
            Surely, the children will come home and their voices will once again rupture the stillness and their parents will motor-home and the backfire from their cars and the call of hellos and children's names across driveways and backyards, as dinner is readied in kitchens—all of this will work in concert to conceal and to accentuate the receding voices of those who have come before and who are now leaving.
             Siobhan stares at the hot white light centered directly above the roofline of the house.   She stares until she must look away.  She closes her eyes and motes of sunlight dance before her, seemingly suspending time.  "How thin they will grow," she thinks and imagines in that moment her parents facing west.


  1. I'm not sure what response you're wishing for, Mary Ann. I read all the way through, began to see the characters, at least the beginnings of who they are. In my mind, it's like a fascinating beginning of a family story, with a few hints of what might come, or maybe not. And that's the goodness of starting to read a story, isn't it? The wonder of what's next!

    1. Not sure where it is going either. Thanks for taking the tine to read through.

  2. So I started reading before and then came back to read through now....I so see the interactions of the characters contributing to an understanding of who they are and am left wondering where this story might go? Is it a story about how different family members all contribute in their own way to the family unit? There were lots of pieces and snippets that talked to me!

  3. this story is going somewhere... to a novel perhaps? This is my favorite line... words are cloaks worn against strong wind

  4. I loved how authentic the conversations are and the characters. There are some killer lines too.

    "Seth, I think she's going to go away."
    "We all are."

    Surely, the children will come home and their voices will once again rupture the stillness and their parents will motor-home and the backfire from their cars and the call of hellos and children's names across driveways and backyards, as dinner is readied in kitchens—all of this will work in concert to conceal and to accentuate the receding voices of those who have come before and who are now leaving.

    There is alot going on in this piece. I read it twice. I have to read it again. You have something here.


  5. I found myself reading closely, wanting to know the characters, wanting to understand them. I wanted a curtain to be drawn aside so I could see into the past, maybe even more than to see into the future. There is certainly the beginning of something here. And there's just the right amount of thought-provoking with lines like: "In such a space it feels as if the entire universe has inhaled. Yet, this is a deceptive pause; for nothing waits."


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